Daveed Diggs Shines in 'Blindspotting,' an Amazing Movie that Laughs Its Way Through Questions About Racial Identity, Police Brutality and Gentrification
A lot changes in a decade.
Nine years ago, Daveed Diggs and his friend Rafael Casal began writing a movie set in their hometown of Oakland, a movie that “doesn’t ignore the world it lives in.” The world it lived in, and what they hoped to spotlight (among other things), was a world where police were killing black men with no societal recourse. The idea was that the movie would, between laughs, shout out that, “Hey, this is a thing that happens.”
Today, of course, this is something we know. Yet it’s still. Fucking. Happening. So the world the movie lives in now isn’t one that says “this happens,” but one that asks “why the fuck is this still happening?”
Because a lot doesn’t change in a decade.
Blindspotting opens with Collin (Diggs) three days away from the end of a year of probation. We follow Collin through a day at his job with a small moving company, interacting with his ex, Val (Janina Gavankar — Shiva!), who is the company’s office manager, and running routes with his best friend, Miles (Casal). It’s a light day, mostly full of jokes until, racing back to his halfway-house for curfew check-in, Miles witnesses a white cop (Ethan Embry) shoot a fleeing black man in the back.
Collin just witnessed a senseless murder. Yet, he’s a felon on probation who is late for curfew. Faced with an impossible situation, he drives off and sets the rest of the movie in motion. But it’s not some sort of legal or action thriller. It’s about what witnessing this type of murder does to a man. It’s about the scourge of essentially sanctioned police brutality/murder, and how black Americans need to teach their kids to instinctively say “don’t shoot” when confronted by the police. It’s about gentrification and gun control, racial politics and racial identity, how we perceive ourselves in comparison to how others perceive us, how words and labels matter, and how neither our mistakes nor our surroundings need to define us.
So, you know. It’s about small stuff.
With this much going on, a film like this could easily get “messagey,” heavy-handedly preaching at the audience. Or it could become a narrative mess, trying so hard to hit on this issue and that message that it fails at actually being a cohesive narrative. But Blindspotting avoids these trappings in a few ways. First, while these topics are heavy and hard, the movie doesn’t tread lightly or pull any punches. It dives in and really tries to unpack these themes as much as you can in two hours, but in a way that isn’t preachy and isn’t clunky. Almost everything that happens makes narrative sense, and the one or two times you can see the wizard behind the curtain and feel the writers’ hands moving certain pieces into place for a certain reason, it’s easy to forgive because of how strong everything else is.
And that’s the second thing that works in the film’s favor. The dialogue, which Casal and Diggs clearly spent a long time honing, feels natural. The characters are believable. And the performances, especially from Casal and Diggs, are fantastic. Many people are already in love with Diggs, whether it’s because of hip-hop group clipping, or TV or commercial appearances, or that “Hamilton” musical which is kind of a thing. And here he shows why everyone loves him. He’s dynamic, he’s funny, he’s heart-wrenching and, yes, he displays his vocal and lyrical prowess. Casal, meanwhile, is a relative newcomer but dives into his role with unflinching abandon. He starts off feeling like little more than comic relief before the film starts to show us that, although he doesn’t carry the same weight as Diggs’ Collin, he is nevertheless fighting to stay afloat in his own way.
Which brings us to the third thing working for this film, which is the direction and editing. The film weaves back and forth in a way that confidently knows when to imbue scenes with frenetic energy and when to let shots linger and be still. All of which feels like a song or dance, as the sense of dread increases that Collin isn’t going to make it through his probation, or that someone else may not make it through the day, period. In fact, there are moments in the film that are so tense, that I felt myself resisting the urge to scream, as my body just wanted some way to release and relieve the tension - particularly after, when you think the tensest, toughest scene is behind you, the film has one more ratcheted-up moment waiting in the wings.
Yet, despite how heavy and hard all of this is, what really holds the film together is that it’s also hilarious. And not in a black humor, sardonic way. It’s a legit comedy, just one that happens to be surrounded by heavy shit. In fact, I cheated when I told you what Casal said about what he and Diggs wanted to write because I left out that they wanted to write “a buddy comedy that doesn’t ignore the world it lives in.” And sure enough, that’s what they did.
I have been telling, and will continue to tell, literally every single person I know that when this movie comes out in July they need to see it. To hear it. To talk about it and to understand it. There aren’t enough superlatives I can throw at this film. It’s funny and tense, honest and insightful, and painfully prescient. At the end of the day, this movie awed me. It’s been two months since I’ve seen it and I’ve put off writing this review because the film deserves better than what I’m capable of saying here. Truthfully, there is so much here that if you really pay attention and listen to what it’s trying to tell you, you’ll feel like you just took a preview class for a 200-level interdisciplinary cultural studies course.
Blindspotting is not only a deeply funny and poignant film but, and I mean this with no sense of hyperbole whatsoever, Blindspotting is also almost certainly the most important movie that will come out this year, maybe even this decade. Because in the decade it took Diggs and Casal to write it, it’s funny and sad how far we’ve come, yet what little progress we have to show for it.
Blindspotting screened at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference. It comes out in July 2018. Go see it.