By Liam Lacey
“There’s no there there,” was Gertrude Stein’s famous quip about Oakland, California, though, in the last couple of decades, the culture of San Francisco’s neighbouring city has become a hotspot of diversity, change, and creative growth.
Following Boots Riley’s groundbreaking Sorry to Bother You, we now have Blindspotting, another first-time feature set in Oakland. The film is about an interracial friendship, backgrounded by the city’s rapid changes, as the established post-war African-American community is invaded by the moneyed young Bay Area tech crowd and their hipster accoutrements.
The obvious weakness to Blindspotting — which was written by co-stars Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs and directed by Carlos López Estrada — is that it tries to do far too much. Partly, it’s a Mean Streets drama about a guy who’s trying to transcend his circumstances and a crazy friend who keeps dragging him in. Also, it’s a goofy interracial buddy comedy. And, during some scenes, even an awkward Hamilton-style rap musical. (Diggs won a Tony for his performance in Lynn Miranda’s musical on Broadway).
All of this adds up to a timely film about interracial fear and fascination.
Diggs’ character, Collin, is black, a young man finishing a year’s parole after a short prison sentence who’s anxious not to end up back in jail. (The reason for his incarceration isn’t revealed until well into the film.) Collin's white friend since childhood, Miles (Casal), is a dangerous guy for a parolee to know.
Miles sees himself as a gangsta rapper: He likes tattoos, guns, rocks chains, and the grill in his teeth. He’s passionately loyal to the working-class unfashionable Oakwood of his upbringing: “Kill a hipster. Save your hood” says one of his T-shirts. It’s not as though Collin can exactly avoid Miles, though. The two men share a job at a moving company, which often means moving rich white people into the neighbourhood and poorer black people out.
Three days before Collin’s parole ends, the two go to the re-opening of a local burger joint, though Miles raises hell when he discovers the default meal is now a veggie burger. Later, smoking dope with an Uber driver, Miles begins playing with the driver’s gun collection which, naturally, makes Collin comfortable.
Later that night, while driving back to his halfway house to meet curfew, Collin witnesses a white cop pursue and shoot a young black man in the back. Shaken, he rushes back to his room, knowing there’s no point in reporting the crime. The event more or less hangs like a dark cloud over the rest of the movie, returning in the last third.
Following the shock of that episode, the film shifts gears, slipping into a series of sitcom-soft set-ups showing the city in flux: The guys help move boxes for a New Age art gallery owner (Wayne Knight). Later, they sell used curling irons at a local black beauty salon. Miles buys single cigarettes from the corner store while Collin, anxious to impress his upwardly mobile former girlfriend, Val (Janina Gavankar), buys pricey bottles of kale juice from the same place, to show her how progressive he is.
Collin also drops in on Miles and his African-American wife (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their adorable son. Miles, of course, is teaching the kid to fight, a detail that takes a disturbing turn.
The title refers to white people’s selective obliviousness about black experience, a pertinent theme in the post-Black Lives Matter era.
Blindspotting is a first film, a busy jumble of thoughts and urgent feelings: The humour is sometimes corny, the surreal fantasies strained and the dramatization of racial privilege unsubtle. Yet the level of ambition here, the commitment to try to say so much, is fresh and exciting and, Gertrude Stein notwithstanding, Oakland clearly has a whole going on there.
Blindspotting. Directed by Carlos López Estrada. Written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. Starring Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs, Janina Gavankar and Jasmine Cephas Jones. Opens July 27 in Toronto (Cineplex Yonge-Dundas), Vancouver, and Montreal with expansion to follow.