Race, class and friendship in Oakland

August 16, 2018

Zakiya Khabir reviews a film starring everyone’s favorite “town” on the Bay.

RAFAEL CASAL and Daveed Diggs are lifelong friends and Oakland natives who turned their love of “The Town” into a movie called Blindspotting. The two wrote and produced the film, using a day-in-the-life format to explore race, police brutality, gentrification and friendship.

The main protagonist, Collin Hoskins (Diggs), is a Black man in the last days of a one-year term of probation for a felony conviction. His best friend and co-worker Miles (Casal) is a grill-wearing white guy with a chip on his shoulder about the way Oakland is changing around him.

Those who recognize Diggs as the hippy brother Johan on Black-ish or from his performance of Jefferson in the original cast of Hamilton will be pleasantly surprised by his dramatic chops. Casal has no major acting credits, but he holds his own, bringing likeability to a character who would be unbearable in less capable hands.

Actors Daveed Diggs (left) and Rafael Casal in Blindspotting
Actors Daveed Diggs (left) and Rafael Casal in Blindspotting

The first few scenes lull you into thinking you might be watching Friday with a twist. These dudes are fun. They trade rhymes and insults, smoke weed and get into trouble. But it isn’t too long before the laughs are cut short by violence.

The heightened cinematic world of Blindspotting can’t be separated from the real-world horrors of race in America. Collin is released from Santa Rita jail, which in real life recently made the news over inmate deaths. When Collin witnesses a police shooting, Oscar Grant and Nia Wilson immediately come to mind.

Collin is a felon and, like 3.7 million other Americans, on probation. This means that his limited freedom can be snatched away at any time. Even after his probation ends, he’ll still be a felon — which will make finding housing and work a lifelong challenge.

Gentrification is everywhere in the film. We see white bearded bicyclists contrasted with Black kids popping wheelies. The corner store has started selling $10 green juice. A friend’s tricked-out custom car doubles as an Uber. A garish modern mansion sits between two humble Victorians. It’s hilariously and painfully real.

Review: MOVIES

Blindspotting, written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, directed by Carlos López Estrada, starring Diggs, Casal, Janina Gavankar and Jasmine Cephas Jones.

One of the sadder moments in the film is when Collin and Miles, who work for a moving company, have to clear all the personal belongings out of a broken-down house so that it can be gutted and flipped by a clueless and callous real estate agent.

If there’s a political critique to be made of the film, it’s that the gentrifiers are portrayed exclusively as arrogant jerks, and there is no examination of the root causes of gentrification or who really benefits. In fact, Miles seems unflappable until he’s mistaken for another white guy who’s new in town. To be fair, Diggs has been much more nuanced about gentrification in interviews.

BLINDSPOTTING DESERVES credit for its multiracial cast and its frank discussions of race. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.

The lives of girlfriends and mothers don’t exist beyond the men they’re associated with. Miles’ baby mamma (Jasmine Cephas Jones) does the crying and nagging that the baby mamma is supposed to do. It was a shame to see ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar) take time out of her studies to do a last-minute favor for Collin.

The scene is important, but the two could have run into each other at a coffee shop or work function — something to show Val’s life doesn’t end when Collin walks out of the room. It would have also been nice if the film had reflected even a hint of Oakland’s sexual and gender diversity.

The romantic relationships in the movie may have been trite, but there is a compelling love story between Collin and Miles.

Lifelong friendships are difficult, especially when one friend’s life changes dramatically. Collin can’t be out past 11, much less have his friend’s back when there’s trouble. He’s a Black man on felony probation, and he feels it every minute of every day. On the other hand, Miles lives as if he’s invincible and looking for a fight.

All of the best aspects of the film are synthesized in a climax that would seem absurd if explained in written form. It’s a testament to the screenplay and character development that it feels so grounded and intense. There are few films that can be that unpredictable and realistic.

Almost every review of Blindspotting has mentioned the other debut film by an Oakland musician with gorgeous hair: Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. The release of these two films so close to one another seems to be coincidental. Both were in development for years, well before Black Panther and Fruitvale Station put Oakland so prominently on the cinematic map.

Yet both filmed in Oakland within a month of each other last year and arrived at Sundance in February. Blindspotting is probably getting more attention than it would otherwise because of its tangential relationship to Sorry to Bother You.

However, comparing it to Riley’s incomparable tour de force is unfair. Blindspotting is a humbler film. It doesn’t present solutions or heroes. It is an unconventional, personal film that asks if one can and should look beyond the worst thing about a person.

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