Tackling race relations within the context of a film is no easy task. For one, there are great examples that already exist to which you’ll always be compared. Additionally, it’s not exactly a subject that strikes people as simple to unpack, or even discuss. And yet it’s one that should be discussed far more often, and with more complexity, than it is now, as the relationships between people with different skin colors—especially in the United States—often suffer due to a lack of dialogue, and thus a lack of understanding.
Filmmaker Carlos López Estrada’s explosive feature film debut Blindspotting, which was written by and stars Hamilton breakout Daveed Diggs and his longtime creative partner Rafael Casal, not only opens a dialogue on race relations, but it tackles the subject head-on with colorful vigor, humor, candor, and artistry, resulting in a rich tapestry of a film that wears its ambition on its sleeve.
Set in contemporary Oakland, Blindspotting revolves around a young man named Collin (Diggs) who’s three days away from the end of his probation, after spending a year in prison for an offense that’s revealed later on in the film in vibrant fashion. Collin works for a moving company with his childhood best friend Miles (Casal), a hot-blooded motormouth with a penchant for getting into trouble and talking his way out of it. Collin is doing his best to stay out of any situation that would land him back in prison, but days away from freedom he witnesses an officer-involved murder of an unarmed black man that sets him on an unexpected path.
Blindspotting is a film that could easily have taken the traditional narrative routes, but the story consistently swerves left when you think it’s going to go right. It still covers issues that you expect, but in far more surprising—and as a result more impactful—ways. If you think you know how the rest of the film plays out based on this short synopsis, well, you’re probably wrong.
Instead of leaning on plot devices, the film invests in its characters and allows their rich arcs to serve as the backbone of this story. This proves to be a successful track, as Diggs shines here in his first leading man role. Collin is a complicated guy—sensitive and smart, but frequently plagued by the anxiety of being judged by the color of his skin. He’s a tall black man with braids in his hair, and his ex-girlfriend more than once remarks on how his look—especially in Oakland—does him no favors. His best friend Miles is white with lots of tattoos and a shiny grill. On the surface, a bystander may make assumptions based on how these two characters look, and the film digs deep into not just the fact that people make these assumptions, but how that impacts the behavior of the individuals in question.
Indeed, Blindspotting has a lot going on. In chronicling racial dynamics in America today, the film also tackles issues of identity stemming from those dynamics—how being perceived as one thing affects how that individual thinks, feels, and acts. But the film is also very specifically an Oakland movie, as Estrada lovingly shoots the city while also commenting heavily on its gentrification by mostly white hipsters. As Oakland born and raised individuals, Collin and Miles have strong feelings about the arrival of health juices at their local convenience store, but again this gentrification ties directly into the themes of identity—if the Oakland they know and call home ceases to be, how does that affect their own identities?
Tackling so much in a debut feature could have been a disaster, but for the most part Lopez pulls it off while also announcing himself as a filmmaker to watch. There’s a Do the Right Thing vibe to the film that’s unmistakable, and while Spike Lee‘s masterpiece is unmatched, Blindspotting could in some ways be considered a Do the Right Thing for 2018. The way Lopez and cinematographer Robby Baumgartner move the camera is almost rhythmic, and even the framing feels poetic and vivid. Blindspotting feels alive. The colors pop, the camerawork soars, and the whole thing feels almost like music—so much so that if the characters broke out into song, it wouldn’t feel entirely out of place. Lopez’s confidence even extends to the sound design, as he uses aural motif to great effect, driving home the thematic underpinnings of the story while also threading dramatic tension throughout.
The vivaciousness of the filmmaking keeps the film moving and cracking even as it tackles heady issues, and Diggs and Casal do a phenomenal job of navigating the varying tones of the film. They can go big and funny—this movie is often downright hilarious—but as the film gets darker (both literally and figuratively, as Lopez starts to pull back on the bright colors in the third act), Diggs and Casal rise to the occasion, bringing even more layers to their performances. It should also be mentioned that the whole ensemble cast here does pretty stellar work.