I knew nothing about the film Blindspotting. I hadn’t seen the trailer, and had never heard of it’s stars and screenwriters, but the name popped up on some blog or podcast. The story of Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, real-life best friends, who grew up in the pre-gentrified, racially charged Oakland, California sounded compelling and right up my ally. I downloaded and watched it on a whim one night, still having no idea what my eyeballs were about to see.
Mind blown. Very few pieces of art have pushed me so hard to dig deep and understand what it might be like to walk in another man’s shoes. Or in this case, to live in another man’s skin.
But let me step back. In the 1970’s and 80’s I grew up in a low key racist household. My parents and grandparents didn’t hate black people, but they also didn’t view them as equals. Generally perceived to be lazy and a bit threatening, my folks would comment when a black person drove through our neighborhood, or blame them for the conditions of their poverty when we traveled the New Haven streets filled with broken down, trash-laden public housing.
In 1987 I attended a lecture at Fairfield University by Larri Mazon, the Director of Multicultural Affairs. Mazon’s presentation, “The Psychology of Being Black,” explained why and how poverty cycles occur, and why down-trodden blck americans face nearly insurmountable odds in changing their circumstances. He talked about generations of poverty, lost fathers and lost role models. And generations of being told by the entire nation “you can’t, and you never will.”
Mazon himself had grown up in Father Panik Village in Bridgeport, one of the worst slums in the nation (it was demolished in 1994, branded a failure.) My first question to him was a naive, “You worked hard and got educated and got out. Why can’t everyone else just work a little harder?” This question would help bring my first racial awakening.
I don’t remember the exact words Mazon used, but it was something along the lines of: I don’t know why I made it out, but most others do not. I only know that the constant psychological messages most of us receive change how black people think, and rob us of opportunities. Most people cannot transcend their circumstances without help … there are too many roadblocks in the way. He wasn’t condemning hard work, but simply saying that it is not enough. And the fact that a few may “get out” is not evidence that hard work alone is the solution.
Today we call these adverse factors things like “opportunity gaps,” “institutional racism,” “white privilege,” “unconscious bias,” and many other names that help us understand the psychology Mazon explained to me over thirty years ago. For some reason, his message got through to me. He pinpointed something inside me and it was a flare gun in the air telling me to wake up and pay attention. Since that day I have worked very, very hard to expel the racist notions planted in me as a child. But hard as I have worked, I know it is not nearly enough.
This background is critical to my own understanding of why Blindspotting is such an important film. Long before Digg’s fame playing Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, he was a lower-middle class mixed race-kid doing the best he could in this poor suburb of San Francisco. Casal was a very white-looking half Irish, half hispanic kid who wrote poetry and was expelled from high school. Digg’s and Casal wrote the screenplay together over the course of a decade, and it draws heavily from their lives growing up in Oakland.
We meet Digg’s character Collin on his last three days of probation, just as he witnesses a police shooting of an unarmed black man. We feel Collin’s paralysis. He wants to report what he has seen, but he is out past his halfway house curfew (a mandate of his parole.) Casal’s Miles pushes him to report what he has seen.
Miles: “You’re a witness. You’re not gonna leave, like, a statement? Or some shit?”
Collin: “Oh yeah….” He mimes holding a telephone to his ear. “Hello police? I’d like to report a murder you did…I was out after curfew. Yeah … I’m a convicted felon… Back to jail? Yeah tomorrow works for me. What time?”
The film places us squarely inside Collin’s mind … he can’t even report this crime. And as a former criminal himself, he is branded forever. This one brief scene says so much about disenfranchisement, being black, trying to escape one’s past, and of course fear of the establishment. This theme repeats again and again. Collin’s girlfriend Val braids his hair, and tells him “Now if you could just get rid of all this hair…you’d almost look, like…”
And Collin fills in the end, ”Like, less blamable?”
Collin just wants to finish his probation, but this secret is just part of the minefield society has put in his way. The hipster invasion of his gentrifying neighborhood seems to mean police lurking on every corner. He also battles a heavy dose of PTSD from witnessing the shooting, conveyed in a series of whiplash flashbacks and startling visions of young black men standing in front of graves in a cemetery.
Collin struggles mightily against the forces that would have him become just another angry criminal black man, just another statistic taking up room in a jail cell, just another homeboy mad about his disappearing neighborhood. Miles seems to be doing nearly the opposite … he is volatile and erratic, frequently dragging Collin into circumstances that will potentially land them both in jail. Starting fights, buying a gun, putting them both at risk at every turn. Miles is a white man in a black world, with all the pent up anger of a life spent in-between … part of both and not fully belonging to either.
Both actors are rappers and poets, and the characters in the film often speak in verse. This should feel like a gimmick, but it never does. The spoken word poetic dialogue somehow transferred the emotions of these characters directly into my own emotional consciousness. Sometimes it is playful and fun, but often it is reflective and introspective. The verse builds throughout the movie, which makes it feel authentic and makes us believe that Miles and Collin have this gift of transforming what they see right in front of them into poetry on the fly.
We witness amazing poetry and art as the two work as movers. They arrive at an old, soon-to-be-torn-down house and are given scant instructions by the preoccupied millennial realtor: Take everything inside to the dump. As they begin cleaning up, Collin finds an old photo album and leafs through the photos of a family now moved on. He raps quietly to the images we see.
Cleanin’ up after the Dead,
Broken TV, paint cans full of lead,
Turnin’ projects into prospects,
Ain’t nothing precious like Sidibe,
Hope they no young niggas
hauling my belongings when the end of me comes.
This man and my mama on the drums.
Sometimes seems all we got is rhythm in the slums,
This dog ain’t no millionaire but just as rare.
Trying to tap dance in the rain, all these niggas like Astaire,
Happy on my face, in my mind I’m a scarecrow,
Hung up in the hood till I’m discarded.
Don’t know who I’m spookin’?
I’m the one who’s spookin’ hardest.
Probably cuz I know I’m just here to help the harvest.
After that I’m a target.
A mover helpin’ up the market.
They are both fighting not to become targets, and neither really understand why others are frightened of them. Miles’ unpredictable and violent nature has plagued Collin through most of his life. Repeatedly throughout the film we see how Miles sucks Collin into trouble, and how Collin is forever trying to keep Miles out of trouble.
Collin’s girlfriend Val straight up tells him he has to get rid of Miles if he is going to move on. But Collin protests, “He’s my best friend.” And Val replies, “Yeah, is he? I know you guys grew up together, but he’s gonna put you back in jail or get you fucking killed.”
In one powerful scene, the two face-off after Miles violently beats a hipster party guest unconscious, because as a white man at the party he is told “you don’t have to act ghetto to hang out here. Welcome to Oakland.”
To Miles — someone who has spent his entire life trying to fit into the urban black world — this is an unforgivable affront. He is being called a wannabe … a fake. A wigger. Nothing could be worse.
Miles to Collin: “You’re a big, black dude with fuckin’ braids in Oakland. Nobody is misreading you Collin.”
Collin has had about all he can take of his friend.“Yeah, I know… yeah my n___a.” Diggs makes us feel his anguish. This moment is so visceral and sad and represents a lifetime of frustration. Tears welling up, he is calling his best friend out. Collin is black, and Miles is not … no matter how hard he has worked to fit in. Collin pushes Miles to call him “my n___a.” But Miles is white, and he can’t say the N-word. And in this conflict we see two friends we need to be watching. They are teaching us lessons that we still have not learned 150 years post-slavery in America.
The films plot is a big part of the point here. Especially as the relationships and location play such a large role in explaining how a young black man ends up in jail, on the wrong side of the police, and why it is so incredibly hard to transcend life’s beginning, the lottery we are born into.
Over the last 75 years there have been many films that deal directly with race. Beginning with Hollywood’s Golden Age, movies like Imitation of Life, No Way Out, Pinky, and The Defiant Ones offered up powerful representations of racism and its consequences. More recently, Do the Right Thing, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, If Beale Street Could Talk and others represent a far deeper introspection and investigation of race in the United States. They are not just telling us that we are racists, they are showing us how to look in the mirror, and how each one of us must do the hard work to change. Blindspotting accomplishes something far above and beyond all these other stories … it takes away our easy excuses and the tendency to point to others and say they are the racists. Not me. Those other white people are the problem, not me. We are forced to look at ourselves.
Diggs delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in the climax, with one of the best monologues I have ever witnessed on screen. He dares us to pay attention to every syllable, forcing us to reconcile the realities of black psychology with the near impossible task of seeing our own blindspots. “It’s all about how you can look at something,” Val explains, “and there can be another thing there that you aren’t seeing, so you got a blindspot.” And getting rid of blindspots is incredibly difficult because “You can’t go against what your brain wants to see unless you spend the time to retrain your brain, which is hella hard. So you’re always gonna be instinctually blind to the spot you weren’t seeing.”
True to its name this movie highlighted my own blindspots long after I thought I had overcome the racism of my childhood. It took me inside the minds of these two young men, allowing this privileged white boy from Connecticut to know just a little bit of what it feels like to be black. A black man. A black man in a gentrifying city. In America
This film destroyed me, transformed my psyche, and moved me to tears. It viscerally represented the idea Larri Mazon first introduced to me so long ago. As far as I am concerned, every white person in this country should see this movie. Especially white men who don’t believe in white privilege.
I give Blindspotting 9.5 illuminated poetic minds out of 10 blindspots.
— The cinematography immerses us in their world … simple but effective, and edited with crisp precision that keeps us moving but never gets in the way, guided by first time feature director Carlos López Estrada. Estrada places us beside them in Oakland with nimble editing (check out the super cool split screen intro to the film) and seems to know when to let these actors have their way, while simultaneously pushing them keep things moving and ensure the emotions are always front and center. I am eager to see where this young director takes us in the future.
— This film makes excellent use of small moments. Its scant 95 minute runtime has no wasted moments, and every scene packs the required punch. In one scene, Collin and Miles help Patrick, an artist played by Wayne Knight, move some photographs. These photos are Patrick’s effort to explain gentrification. He asks the two of them to stare at each other, and they decline, clearly uncomfortable. Patrick tells them “It’s not sexual […] This is about finding the soul … connect … understand.” Patrick is the most unlikely person to explain the phenomenon of changing a neighborhood that forces out longtime residents in favor of new money. He is a middle-aged white artist who by all appearances is exactly the kind of person who pushes out the people who have spent their lives there, and is oblivious to his own impact on the community. And Knight’s casting against type makes the statement all the more powerful.