Director: Carlos López Estrada
Writer: Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs
Cinematographer: Robby Baumgartner
Producer: Keith Calder, Jess Calder, Rafael Casal, and Daveed Diggs
by Jon Cvack
It seems as though every other month brings a dubious police shooting of a black man - some justified in force when additional information comes forward, and others showing a gross abuse of power. Worse, the officers are often excused and the distrust and division continues on. The documentary Flint Town (2018) provides an underrepresented of the dilemma; following a unit of Flint, Michigan police officers whose city consistently ranks within the top ten most violent in the country. We meet a range of officers on the political spectrum, all attempting to do the best they can to combat crime. Throughout the series, we see the pendulum swing from results to failure and witness the frustration in each of the officers who struggle to believe they’re making a difference. Faced with a community filled with distrust, a short staffed department, and pitiful pay, we see that the vast majority of police officers do want to do good work. Just as the police don’t want a few bad officers to reflect the whole department, the same goes for the black community
Blindspotting is a story about two friends, Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal), who grew up in the streets of Oakland. Gentrification is now rolling strong, transforming the area into a thriving upper middle class neighborhood within just a few years. The movie opens with a brilliant montage of the Oakland streets as they’re slowly transforming from liquor stores and crumbling homes to juice stores and refurbished multi-million dollar mansions. We meet Collin (with his hair braided; this will be important) in a courthouse, getting out of jail on parole, where the judge states that if he can live a straight life for a year he will gain full freedom. Fast forwarding 11 months and change, Collin has three days left before he’s free and, of course, we know he’s going to skate the line.
Something I didn’t know before going into the movie (and wish I had) is that the film was written by Oakland locals Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal who’ve spent over a decade developing the script. Previous to acting, Diggs was a spoken word artist who often appeared on Def Poetry Jam before joining Hamilton where he played Thomas Jefferson. The movie is a little rough in some places, but it always retained an unrelenting personal connection to Oakland; the way a Woody Allen movie feels like New York, PTA like Los Angeles, or John Hughes like Chicago. For as much as a few scenes made little sense or functioned as plot serving devices, the film introduces us to the modern streets of Oakland in a way that’s never been seen.
The story opens with Collin and Miles in the back seat of their friend’s car. Purple and blue neon lights string across the ceiling and we’re immersed within the film's rapid style. The three are eating and arguing about burgers which then progresses to finding the driver’s guns to then finding out that the driver works for Uber and he then gets a call. While it seemed like it was trying a bit too hard to be a Pulp Fiction throwback, the act further built the world and played with expectation, moving from local restaurants to whether there’s crime in the area to revealing the car as a lowrider standing a couple feet up on the ground with massive rims next to an expensive trendy burger restaurant where customers have to support if they want anything other than vegan meat.
Thanks to Collin’s shirt, we know we’re in Oakland, which is undergoing rapid and significant gentrification; so fast that within a block you can go from a rundown liquor store to a trendy coffee shop. Collin and Miles are a couple of movers with a Good Will Hunting-type of morning tradition, in which Collin picks up Miles and the pair stop at a liquor store where Miles buys a single loose cigarette for a dollar. The store has also started selling fresh green juice in a fancy bottle for ten dollars which Collins decides to try out.
Collin’s ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar) works as the receptionist at the moving company, having gotten both Collin and Miles their jobs, now studying for her degree in psychology (which might be the film’s first plot serving example, but more on that later). After a long first day in which we discover all of these details, Collin races to get home in order to make his 11pm curfew at the halfway house and complete his chores. However, at a stoplight that refuses to switch green, Collin sees a man sprinting for his life, chased by a police officer (Ethan Embry) who then shoots the man in the back; all witnessed by Collins, who’s nine minutes late going home, trying his best to sleep.
The next day, he grabs Miles and meets his five year old son and wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones). They’re a loving family, trying their best to provide a decent life for their child and preserve their roots in a changing community. With the story of the shooting on the news, Collin explains what he saw, but is reluctant to go into the details for fear of upsetting Miles.
It’s this second act that I struggled with, as it began introducing back to back convenient plot devices to advance the narrative. After we see Colin's hope to rekindle the flame with Val, they then visit Collin’s mom, who has a new African-American-Asian child with her new husband, who’s taken over Collins’ old room which he was hoping to move back into.
In a scene that boggled my mind, while Collins talks to his mother, Miles walks off and returns with a box of hair straighteners, asking if he could have them. While I assume the mother was a former hairdresser, why she had a large container of the tools, or even why she was willing to let them go without another thought (while refusing to let Collin move back home) made little sense.
Miles and Collin then take the hair straighteners to a local hairdresser and in some weird Spike Lee throwback, Miles attempts to hawk them off to characters we’ve never met before. In the end, they demand Miles prove they work and it cuts to Collin with all of his hair now straight. Not wanting to lose his braids, and needing them remade before curfew, he calls Val, who agrees to help him out long as and so the two meet up and we get to learn of their romantic history; culminating in a potential kiss that’s disrupted by Collin’s mother. Collins is late to the halfway house once again, confronted by his parole officer who admonishes him to honor the rules, whether by punctuality or doing his chores; explaining that the purpose of the rules is to demonstrate that the ex-convict can actually do what he’s told, which Collin is failing to do.
Yet the convenience doesn’t stop there, as the next day as Collin is getting ready to leave for the day at the moving company office, a customer recognizes him as “The Scorpion” and tells the tale to a friend about how Collins achieved the moniker. The story provides one of the best scenes of the film, but again I was frustrated that the coincidence of a customer recognizing him which seemed included solely to tell the audience the story. Within a matter of minutes I was left wondering - what if Miles never found the hair straighteners? Why did they have to do all of Collin’s hair, and given that it was a hairdresser, why wouldn’t he just have them braid his hair, if he was so upset by the straightening? What were the chances of these customers just so happening to enter the moving office so that we could hear the story of how Collin got where he was? The individual scenes all worked well, but it was the craft of getting from the various points that felt too easy, leaving me wondering how the rest of the movie would then play out.
Continue to Part 2...
BELOW: Very clever scene
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