Sunday, February 23, 2020

"Blindspotting": review

"Blindspotting" is a 2018 dramedy directed by Carlos López Estrada and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Diggs and Casal are real-life friends from the Oakland area, and they wanted to make a movie that offered a more accurate portrayal of that part of California than had been seen up to that point. Their actual biographies remind me very strongly of the now-legendary tale of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, two Bostonians who wanted to create a drama that brought their hardscrabble part of Boston to life on the big screen. For Damon and Affleck, this resulted in 1997's "Good Will Hunting," a story that won the pair an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It may not be obvious at first, but "Blindspotting" has another point in common with "Good Will Hunting": it is, in a deep sense, a tale of therapeutic personal growth. And let me get my verdict out of the way right now: I was moved by this film.

Collin Hoskins (Diggs), convicted of felony assault, is close to ending his probation. If he can fly straight for three more days, he'll be a free man, so let the final countdown begin. Hoskins, an African-American, is best friends with Miles Turner, who is white, but who wears a grill and talks like a brutha. Both of them work for a moving company with the imperious name of Commander; the young lady working dispatch, Val (Janina Gavankar), is Collin's sort-of ex who still has feelings for Collin. Miles despises Val, seeing her as a stuck-up, uppity bitch who likes nothing more than to act superior to Collin. Miles has a wife named Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and a son named Sean (Ziggy Baitinger). Collin's best friend also has a problem: a hair-trigger temper resulting from a combination of immaturity, a constant sense of injustice, and deep-seated insecurity. Miles doesn't mind being casually called "nigga" by Collin and even by his Latina/African-American wife, but in a strange show of self-restraint, he never uses the epithet himself. This becomes an issue later in the story.

As the story begins, Collin is just about to end his probation when his buddy Miles brandishes a newly acquired pistol. Collin freaks out, knowing only too well what this might mean for his probation if he's caught hanging with armed friends. Later on, as Collin is driving the moving truck back one night, he witnesses a police shooting: a white cop guns down a black man who is running away from the officer. Collin is traumatized by what he saw, and he has flashbacks to the incident, including clear visions of the white officer's face. The incident makes the news; the policeman is identified as one Officer Molina (Ethan Embry), and the newscaster explicitly mentions that Molina shot the suspect four times in the back while the suspect was running away.

"Blindspotting" somehow pulls off the trick of seeming not to have a plot while also very much having one. The movie has a desultory, slice-of-life feel to it as we watch Collin and Miles go about their daily routines. At the same time, like an action movie, "Blindspotting" uses a ticking-clock trope to increase the level of suspense as we all count down the final days of Collin's probation through a series of title cards. Will Collin make it to the end, or will he fuck everything up? The movie is definitely tracking the character arcs of both of our principals as they go to various properties to sling furniture, as they attend parties, and as they meet friends and neighbors. Miles's problem seems to be the more obvious one: he needs to learn to control his temper and act more responsibly, especially given that he's a husband and a father. Collin, who is generally much more quiet and pensive, needs to escape the passivity that characterizes his approach to life—something his sort-of-ex Val keeps harping on. And all of this is happening in the tense racial kaleidoscope that is Oakland, California, where "town shit" can happen to out-of-towners who don't know their place.

I was, quite frankly, blown away by this movie. Granted, it has a few on-the-nose moments, such as a scene when the movie's title gets mentioned in the course of a conversation between Collin and Val, who is studying psychology to get a degree and eventually leave her dispatcher job at Commander Movers. Val uses slangy mnemonics to help her remember certain psych terms for her upcoming exam; "blindspotting" is her way of remembering the cognitive bias revealed by the "Rubin's Vase" image. The movie also switches genres on occasion and becomes something close to a musical when the main characters begin angrily rapping as a way to describe their predicaments. But I thought the on-the-nose mention of the word "blindspotting," while corny, felt organic to the moment, and the sudden bouts of out-of-nowhere rapping (which don't happen that often) struck me as artistic ways of driving home the poignancy of life on the mean streets.

"Blindspotting" does a fantastic job of making you care about its main characters, and even about its minor characters. Everyone who appears on screen registers as a fully fleshed-out personality. Miles, despite his hair-trigger temper, has his warm, caring side, and he's an awesome talker whenever he gets the urge to sell something—like old hair curlers or a used sailboat taken from a move-out site—to a skeptical audience. Rafael Casal is excellent in the role of Miles—funny, violent, unstable, and weirdly poetic. Daveed Diggs, as Collin Hoskins, plays the role with depth and subtlety. Collin may be too passive in his approach to life, but he's a deep thinker and perhaps, in his own fumbling way, is looking to escape his Oakland-bound situation in a quest for something better. Neither Miles nor Collin gets portrayed as a total hero or a total villain, and the issues that the movie deals with get what I think is fair play, with no easy answers. You have to go back to 1990s-era Spike Lee to find complex urban/racial issues dealt with in a way that respects their complexity, and truth be told, I'm still gnawing on the themes and problems and conflicts laid out in "Blindspotting." That's the sign of a mature, well-made movie—one that offers no easy answers to questions of police violence, being white and "acting black," neighborhood-as-tribe, gun ownership, and transitioning to responsible adulthood.

I can say this, though: unlike Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite," with its Marxism-tinged hopelessness born of Marx's conviction that the proletariat cannot escape its circumstances, "Blindspotting" ends on a more positive, life-affirming note as two friends deal with personal problems and, just maybe, come out the other side a little bit wiser, a little more mature, with a glimmer of hope for their respective futures. American movies are often like that, affirming the values of life and freedom and fulfillment, not those of hopelessness, inevitability, and despair. I think the last time a film moved me this deeply was "Leave No Trace," which I watched last year. "Blindspotting" is definitely worth your while. I highly, highly recommend it, and my hat is off to two super-talented writer-actor-producers who have a bright future ahead of them.

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