In ‘Blindspotting,’ Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal deliver beating heart of Oakland

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

“Blindspotting,” written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, settles itself cozily into the long tradition of site-specific filmmaking. At its heart, the film serves as a time capsule of what defines Oakland in 2018 — friendship, green juice, rap music and police violence.

It packs these themes together densely and charmingly, yet haphazardly, into the framework of the film’s overarching portrayal of the tensions that erupt from gentrification. These subthemes sometimes push through to the film’s surface at awkward and unexpected moments, and at other points, they are altogether absent. As a result, the film becomes the site of a clumsy but captivating balancing act.

No socially conscious film about the Bay Area in 2018 would be complete without addressing gentrification. “Blindspotting” brings this idea to the forefront early on with the film’s title sequence, a split-screen visual masterpiece that establishes the idea of two very different visions of Oakland coexisting. The careful eye with which director Carlos López Estrada captures the shifting Oakland landscape is remarkable, injecting the film with images that run the gamut from stunning to playful to outright disturbing.

Even given the complex backdrop painted for the film within its first few moments, its frenetic energy isn’t activated until Collin (Daveed Diggs) witnesses a murder committed by a police officer. Having made direct eye contact with the policeman at fault, Collin is visibly haunted by what he saw. But just as suddenly as he was perturbed, Collin seems to forget the incident altogether. Collin’s memory of the murder weaves its way through the entirety of the film, and yet, more often than not, it is lost into the greater tapestry, re-emerging only when Collin is alone with his thoughts. What feels like a life-altering moment becomes just another day in Collin’s hectic life.

Collin typically spends time with his lifelong best friend, the smooth-talking salesman and code-switching expert Miles (Rafael Casal). While Diggs’ Collin can be unconvincing on his own, when he and the brashly spontaneous Miles come together, their chemistry is completely hypnotizing. Collin enables Miles’ worst tendencies, many of which seem to stem from the fact that Miles is a white man who constantly feels the need to work to prove that he belongs in Oakland. When the two are forced to confront the fault lines of their friendship late one night, their confrontation is as explosive as it is tender.

The film’s grappling with gentrification reveals itself most gloriously when Collin and Miles, the self-appointed representatives of an older Oakland, collide with gentrifying techies — sometimes with mockery and other times with outright violence. And yet, Collin and Miles’ observations on the matter come all too often in the form of throwaway jokes. Their rapid wit somehow completely vanishes and is replaced by stale jokes that rarely go much further than a quick, “So what’s the deal with $10 green juice, eh?”

Such bland jokes are painfully obvious (and abundant) blemishes in a script that is otherwise so inventive and full of various other explorations of gentrification. It’s just one symptom of the film’s biggest issue — it presents a wide assortment of themes but ultimately fails to thoroughly explore them, sometimes even losing them altogether. “Blindspotting” bit off more than it could chew, but the film has its heart in the right place. That it seeks to portray these often misportrayed and even more often ignored issues of Oakland today — through  riveting performances and plotlines — makes the film undeniably praiseworthy.

“Blindspotting” is at once sprawling and contained. It tells the story of a whole period of a city’s history, yet it does so by examining a small handful of lives within that city. It should be obvious to anyone examining the film’s premise that it will certainly not be able to provide solutions or even answers to any of the grand questions that it presents. Instead, the film’s  greatest victory stems from the fact that it raises all the right questions.

“Blindspotting” opens Friday at Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland. 

Contact Sannidhi Shukla at [email protected].