Blindspotting is an uneven but harrowing examination of race and privilege in Oakland

By Leigh Monson

   I do not envy the team tasked with cutting the trailer for Blindspotting, because condensing the plot and tone of this film into a two-minute advertisement is a task probably best described as impossible. Yet the resulting clip show is about as close as one could reasonably expect in trying to capture what exactly watching this strange film is like. This is a film that breaks convention, often purposely and confrontationally, but the success of those deviations from expectation is debatable, as the film exists in this murky area between realistic character study and artistically heightened reality. This is a film that challenges and is designed to do so, but it's hard to say whether its challenges are treated with necessary gravity in key turning points in the narrative.
   In Oakland, California, childhood friends Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) work as movers and sell the junk they collect on the side to make enough money to survive the rising costs of living in their progressively more gentrified neighborhood. Miles buys a gun from an illegal vendor, ostensibly to protect his family, but he is not shy about showing the piece off at every opportunity. Collin, meanwhile, is trying to keep out of trouble as he serves out the final days of his probation sentence, but that security is threatened when he witnesses the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. Now Collin struggles with the knowledge that as a black ex-felon he could just as easily end up dead in the street without any repercussions.
   The core of this story lives and dies on the relationship between Collin and Miles, which is the throbbing heart that holds the narrative's divergent elements in the semblance of a gravitational pull. Written by Diggs and Casal, themselves childhood friends, Blindspotting is at its core a story of interracial friendship among people who mutually lack the privilege of wealth but still need to cope with the disparity of social privilege each of them is afforded by the color of his skin. Miles, a white man, is reckless and hotheaded in ways that consistently put him and Collin in danger, but it's Collin, a black man, who is most consistently viewed as the more threatening of the two, despite a persistent desire to better himself and avoid conflict for the sake of surviving his probation. These are characters that feel lived in and real, reflecting the struggle of seeing beyond one's own experiences to grasp greater perspective on institutional and socially accepted racial prejudices, showing how white people can benefit even from the unintentional pain of their closest black friends.
   But where Blindspotting feels bizarre is in the jarring tonal shifts that dominate its first hour. The film shifts back and forth between comic levity and dead-serious social commentary at the drop of a hat, creating a persistent sense of whiplash that never allows the film to enter a comfortable groove. This is to some extent clearly intentional as a demonstration of how humor is used to cope with the daily struggle of Oakland living, but it never stops feeling jarring and doesn't quite come together as feeling like a normal state of being for the film's version of Oakland, intentionally uncomfortable or not. I would be curious to see what an Oakland resident would think of this portrayal, but to an outsider the experimental cinematic language that defines Blindspotting doesn't quite land.
   That said, the film's third act is an absolute barnburner, an encapsulation of the disparate attitudes previously scattershot throughout the narrative into a distilled series of confrontations that are harrowing in their intensity. If the entire film felt as tight and laser focused as that final thirty minutes, Blindspotting would be an instant classic, a brilliant deconstruction of racial privilege and the anxieties inherent in having to confront the horrors of deadly prejudice on a daily basis. I only wish I felt that strongly about the two-thirds of the film that lead to that point.

3.5/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.