Just a few weeks ago, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU arrived in theatres showcases an alternate universe Oakland that felt both very close and very far from our own. BLINDSPOTTING unfolds in our world’s version of Oakland on the proverbial other side of town. While BOTHER chose satire as its means of meditating on race and labor in the United States, BLINDSPOTTING places it more straightforward. It also spreads its focus wider.

BLINDSPOTTING explores race for sure but also touches on gentrification, toxic masculinity, guns, and the epidemic of police shootings on unarmed men of color. Additionally, it explores how to survive life after being labeled a felon, the virtue signaling of “healthy living,” Parenthood, maturing, and PTSD. And somehow it does it all with deceptive ease. Perhaps that’s because it puts a little bounce on it.

BLINDSPOTTING: The exes
Janina Gavankar and Daveed Diggs talk hair care in BLINDSPOTTING. (Courtesy of Lions Gate)

The Idea Behind BLINDSPOTTING

Collin (Daveed Diggs) is days away from the end of his year-long probation and can practically taste freedom. Despite his longtime best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) illegally buying a gun and Collin’s inability to make his 11 o’clock curfew at the halfway house, there is no reason to think anything can derail him.

Then, driving back to the halfway house and cutting it close once again, Collin witnesses a police pursuit ending in bloodshed. Through the side-view mirror, he sees exactly how it happens and that the officer (Ethan Embry) had no reason to fear for his life when he pulled the trigger multiple times.

Like that, Collin’s tenuous peace of mind slips. The nightmares come. He starts to realize how the ex he still harbors feelings for, Val (Janina Gavankar), really sees him. Miles’ hate of the “hipsters” and obsession with protecting his slice of life turns from a gag to sinister. Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Mile’s wife, turns from friend to tossing him out of her home in a moment. And yet, as a former felon, he knows he cannot afford to step out of line, to admit what he saw, to confess his sudden shift in mental health.

It turns out there are many ways he can be derailed from completing his probation and achieving true freedom.

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The Writing

Collin and Miles frequently freestyle at and with one another and others. This lends the screenplay from Diggs and Casal — the first feature-length for both of them — a sense of lyricism and energy. Additionally, when language turns from a game into a weapon, it means the words hit that much harder. These are two characters who know how to use language and know how to make it feel like a hug or a blade between the ribs.

The script also carries a remarkable sense of empathy for its characters. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone is good and bad, no one gets out of this film unsullied. This can be a hard trick to pull when dealing with a cop who clearly shot a retreating suspect without cause. However, the writing plays it well, giving him humanity but never letting him off the hook. Miles’ last line to the officer, in particular, is short, devastating, and pointedly goes without an answer.

The only possible deduction I could take is that the script has so much on its mind. As made clear in the intro, this is not a movie with just one area of focus. However, I love its ambition and the things it lets dangle feel authentic to me. It makes the ending, which could read as a tidy bow, feel messier, more real. Additionally, these issues are largely without easy conclusions or simple summaries. Why should the screenplay push them to be otherwise?

BLINDSPOTTING: Family at home
Rafael Casal gives Ziggy Baitinger earmuffs while Jasmine Cephas Jones looks on disapprovingly in a scene from BLINDSPOTTING. (Courtesy of Lions Gate)

Casting the Leads of BLINDSPOTTING

Casal and Diggs are evidently real life friends and they wonderfully import that chemistry to the film. While the film slowly rolls out some of the backstories of their relationship as it goes — and the rollout is appreciated — you never doubt that their connection runs deep.

I do not know Diggs for much, I confess, beyond HAMILTON, THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, and his largely hooded voiceover heavy performance in THE GET DOWN. So I had little expectation about his dramatic chops. I am thrilled to report I will not make that mistake again. Whether it is the way he opens his expressive face only to pull it back in acts of self-preservation or his two moments of explosive lyrical rage, he owns all the work. He is not hammy, he is commanding. He does not chew scenery, he owns it. It is an excellent performance.

Casal proves more slippery. At the start, he seems to be an archetype. The friend from the past who is too wild, too unhinged for the protagonist’s present if they want a future. The way he plays with words, especially while selling “found” treasures, is mesmerizing. If he was only wild and fun, you would still leave the theatre happy.

However, he also finds and slowly reveals Miles deep wounds. He adapted to life as a white kid in a majority-minority neighborhood. The world changed around him, though, and now he feels unmoored. Never safer, he feels the need to buy a gun. Never surrounded by as many people that share his skin tone, he cannot stand to be accepted by them. While the people of color, long used to being jostled out of comfort by the white intrusion, adapt, Miles cannot.

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Casting the Rest of the BLINDSPOTTING Call Sheet

Gavankar lends depth to Val, showing some of Miles’ criticisms are not unfair — although cruelly put –while also embodying some of the features that make Collin idealize her. The scene between her and Diggs that gives the movie its title is heartbreaking. There is no right or wrong in the conversation and that means they’ll never get back to what they once had. It’s quietly devastating.

Jones has to match Casal’s energy as finds a way to do that, flowing back and forth with him. When she gets big, he shrinks. She’s the only one who can cow him and you can see why. Not just because of her energy but because of the feelings between them. It is not the biggest role but she makes sure you remember it.

Embry is nearly wordless as the murderous cop, letting his eyes go wide to do the work. As noted above, it is a difficult road to walk to not make him too much monster or too much victim. Embry manages it though, revealing the self-involvement at the heart of this man who has finally been given a reason to look outside himself and still cannot. Utkarsh Ambudkar shows up for just one scene but it is a doozy. If you ever wanted to see if someone can outdo Michael Pena’s ANT-MAN monologue skills, well, Ambudkar might be the new king.

BLINDSPOTTING: Cop
Ethan Embry is caught in the red lights in a scene from BLINDSPOTTING. (Courtesy of Lions Gate)

Filming

Also new to the feature film game, director Carlos López Estrada meets its unique demands well. I especially feel compelled to call out his framing of the nightmare and PTSD related scenes. Two, in particular, one that sees Collin spitting up bullets and another where he hallucinates a cemetery full of wrongly murdered black men stand out in particular. I cite these two in specific because they demonstrate who collaborated to the moment Estrada is.

The bullet dream sequence is high style with dream logic, shifting gels, morphing circumstances, and thunderous sound design. The cemetery scene, on the other hand, switching from panic to eerie silence. The figures stand, quietly, as if in the judgment of Collin. Except one who wordlessly seems to ask our protagonist to make things right even though there is no such thing in this situation. Estrada manages that throughout, managing the film’s often vacillating tone, matching image and composition to make it all go down smoothly.

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That’s A Wrap

Funnier than I expected. More ambitious than I expected. A lot deeper than I expected. BLINDSPOTTING refuses to narrow its scope and is messier and stronger for it. As a portrait of a specific life in the specific time it feels precise and universal all at once.

BLINDSPOTTING: The duo
Daveed Diggs sports that hometown pride alongside Rafael Casal in a scene from BLINDSPOTTING. (Courtesy of Lions Gate)

In a summer full of movies with something to say about America now — THE FIRST PURGE, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, yes even MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE FALLOUT — BLINDSPOTTING is the only one that wrestles with it head on. No allegory, no metaphor, no satire. I have good reviews for all of those movies so I mean so shade on them. That said, BLINDSPOTTING is something special. I loved it.

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