Blindspotting, Carlos Lopez Estrada’s inspiring directorial debut, is much more than a love letter to Oakland. It is very much the movie we all need, particularly now. There is a certain rhythm inherent in a movie’s story. Whether it’s the beat the characters move to, the three-act script, or the music, all the pieces converge on one focal point to form an underlying drama. Without that rhythm, nothing moves.
In Blindspotting, the film’s rhythm is very much that of Oakland, California. As it happens, I had a chance to visit the city for the first time last fall on my travels, and the film captures the essence and feel of the changing dynamic that affects everyone who lives, works, or even visits, especially those whose roots are firmly planted in a city facing mass gentrification.
Featuring a script from lead actors Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) and Rafael Casal, who are both rapper-poet-actors, the story concerns itself with Collin’s (Diggs) desire to complete his probation following a prison sentence. Diggs’ performance is a tour de force in dramatic tension as his character witnesses a life-altering event that shakes him to the core of his being. His best friend, Miles (Casal), concerns himself with his image and is less to do with his responsibilities as a father and a husband. Casal’s performance speaks volumes to the swagger the character thinks he needs to continue to survive and thrive in an ever-changing environment.
The story uses Collin’s struggles to stay on the straight and narrow because he knows that even as a black man in Oakland, the police will detain him. Diggs and Casal smartly use comedy, and more importantly, the buddy-comedy motif to break up the tension, allowing us to breathe.
Director Estrada uses sight and sound to bring us into the ever-changing world that is Oakland, creating visual cues and characters to surround our leads. Janna Gavankar plays Val. She understands Collin and wants to see him find the best part of himself. There’s a quiet brooding Jasmine Cephas Jones, who plays Ashley, Miles’ partner. There’s a scene between the two of them where she gives Miles a piece of her mind, and when it played, you could feel the audience reacting; it was palpable. To give the scene away here would ruin a part of the film, but let me just say that it’s a theme that plays into all of our worst fears.
Music is at the heart of Blindspotting. As a first time director, Estrada interweaves the rhythmic sounds that have emanated from the Bay Area for a long time. The film’s music supervisor, Jonathan McHugh, attended the screening at SXSW, and he mentioned that the production wanted music that was authentic to Oakland. Those choices drive home the “love-letter” aspect to the film’s message.
I would be remiss if I didn’t call out Daveed Diggs’ performance, specifically. First, I must also acknowledge Estrada’s direction in setting up one particular scene toward the end of the film. Diggs, his eyes wide open and full of emotion, exhales in a percussive rap that expresses how we all feel about the current state of life. The scene allows us to exhale; to recognize that change is all about us, that we must deal with it in our own way, but we must also be willing to change to see the light.
Blindspotting opened Sundance in January and was subsequently picked up by Lionsgate for distribution. The film opened in LA and NYC on July 27th, expands to Phoenix and other markets this weekend and will gradually expand nationwide in August. Audiences at SXSW were thunderous in their applause. The film is very much in the moment; its fears are laid out for us to explore. Carlos Lopez Estrada has been named as one of the directors to keep an eye on, and this film shows why. Blindspotting is beautiful, inspired, scary, and timely, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Blindspotting has been rated R by the MPAA.