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Blindspotting

Blindspotting is a passion project in every sense of the word. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal wrote it together, produced it together, star in it together, and even contributed to the soundtrack together. Although it’s not a true story, it’s heavily influenced by and reflective of the world that the two grew up in. From that point of view, it’s a film that can’t help but be authentic in its portrayal of a city that’s undergoing gentrification and displacing its people as a result. What’s really interesting with this, though, is that in Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) we’ve got two characters who grew up in a marginalised setting together, who now find themselves surrounded by a new class of people who are making them another kind of minority in their own hometown. And then there’s another layer on top of that, where Miles is the white kid who grew up in a black neighbourhood, making him the minority that’s usually the majority because he’s part of another minority group. These are all intricacies of big city life that aren’t possible to write about without lived experience.

As a narrative structure, it’s set up in a way that feels deliberate to mimic a typical Shakespeare play. It begins and ends with classical references. At the very start, we’re eased into a montage of Oakland set to Verdi’s La Traviata, before the film settles into a hip-hop score that would be more closely associated with this kind of film. The end then comes with a Shakespearean soliloquy, but beautifully in the form of what appears as a freestyle rap. Diggs has spoken about how he views rap as heightened language, in the same way poetry was for Shakespeare, and how this ending is designed as part of a thread that runs throughout the film where rapping is indicative of a time where brain activity is heightened and quite literally spilling out of the character. Beyond that, the narrative also moves in and out of the classic comedy and tragedy genres, to the point where it’s as if one side of the film is always setting the audience up for the other to take maximum effect. There are moments that are hilarious, but it’s never too long before a kick in the gut is coming. But equally, the opposite is true. For every kick in the gut, we can laugh about it soon enough. Just like big city life.

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal also play their characters brilliantly well. But then I suppose it goes with the territory when they’ve invested so much of themselves into the film, it would almost be hard not to turn in an authentic portrayal of their characters. Another way that the film captures the chaos of big city life, though, is that there are a number of smaller characters, who only show up for a minute or two at a time, but they’re written and performed as if they genuinely do have a big old life outside of this. Jasmine Cephas Jones, Tisha Campbell, and Wayne Knight are some of the highlights in this regard, even if one plays Miles’s partner and the mother to his children, one plays a neighbourhood hairdresser and the other plays an art dealer who we only meet through his custom in our heroes’ day jobs. One of the funnier set pieces, though, is when we meet Utkarsh Ambudkar’s character, apparently modeled on a friend of Daveed Diggs in real life. There’s no point in trying to describe what happens, it just won’t do it justice, but the scene is a personal favourite of mine.

I was really surprised to learn that this was Carlos Lopez Estrada’s first feature film as a director. I wondered how he could manage to make such a mature, sophisticated film on his first attempt. Then I found out that he has a long history as a music video director and it all made sense. The narrative is almost set to music to create a kind of routine for Collin and Miles, but it also adds to the previously mentioned heightened language in the form of rap that the two use. To that extent, it almost is a feature-length, narrative music video. The cinematography is also reminiscent of old West Coast hip-hop videos where you just got to hang out with the artist in their area, meeting their real-life friends and the neighbourhood celebrities as a result. A big part of why this feels so real is the deliberate production choices.

Blindspotting is surely enough to become a modern-day classic in the subgenre of hood films. Just as films like Do The Right Thing and Boyz N The Hood before it, it has a stake in the story it’s telling because it comes from the things that have made the filmmakers who they are. Sadly, the thing that makes those two such die-hard classics is that thirty years after their release, the themes that they deal with are still so relevant today. Blindspotting takes those themes and refreshes them into a modern-day version of the same problems, and maybe that microcosm will pass a bit quicker, but the core of the story – division, gentrification, abuse of power – will probably be around for long enough that future generations relate to this in the same way that current and past generations have related to the work of Spike Lee and John Singleton.

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