When I was young, my father explained the “rules” to me. The “rules,” is a talk that every black father has with their son. They mostly consist of what to do around cops, how you “should” act around whites, and what neighborhoods not to go to. And when I say what neighborhoods not to go to, I don’t mean the gang riddled ones. I mean the affluent ones, where a black kid sticks out like a hoodie and some skittles in broad daylight.
Blindspotting is a new explanation of the “rules.” Except those “rules” aren’t new lessons directed to us, they’re to teach those who have never been us. That is, Blindspotting is the freshest commentary on race relations since Black Lives Matter, and in a film sense, since Do the Right Thing.
The film, set in Oakland, follows Colin (Daveed Diggs), a convicted felon on the last 3 days of his parole, and his hot head buddy, Miles (Rafael Casal), as they work at Commander moving. The coupling is a theme throughout the film, as the movie opens with a split screen. On each side, as operatic music plays, we see visions of Oakland: the white and the black.
In a savvy examination of perception, blacks from the hood dance as operatic music plays in the background. Play that opening sequence without the music, without the white dancers mirroring the blacks, and the reaction might be different. It’s a unifying scene, but in terms of perception, a divided one as well. Blindspotting is deeply concerned with those perceptions. The judgment of former-black convicts, former-black drug dealers, the black community itself, those who are marked for life.
The film plays and tussles with these judgments and stereotypes, as Colin acts more in a “white” sense than Miles, who acts with black mannerisms. This role reversal is often played up for laughs, with Miles honking and cursing at a white guy who won’t move his car. Later, it’s Colin who’s accused of shouting and honking. If you’re black and with a white person, the white person will be reprimanded, the black person will be arrested (them the rules).
This isn’t to say Miles is ignorant of black plight. He understands the inherent bias depicted in the media, as he shouts at his television when the black victim on the news is shown in his mugshot. A script that took Casal and Diggs 10 years to write, has many of these micro observations of race-based bias. Nevertheless, within the script, even at Miles’s most thoughtful, he’s shortsighted. He’s often unable to comprehend how his actions directly affects Colin. Mostly because he sees himself as black, with a black best friend, a black wife, and a black son. He’s blinded to the fact that he’ll rarely be as severely punished as Colin, especially as Colin is on parole.
While Colin is driving back the Commander moving truck, back to his parole house, he witnesses a black man shot in the street by a police officer. The incident colors Colin’s outlook throughout the film. Because he’s unable to report the officer, since Colin was past curfew for his parole (and who would believe an ex-con anyways), the fear of being gunned down in the street as well haunts him. In fact, one of his morning routines is to jog through a graveyard. In that graveyard he’s often haunted by young blacks of the past, those whose lives were cut too short too soon.
In the background of the larger drama, is Colin’s relationship to his ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar). Val, studying psychology, wants little to do with her ex. Their dynamic, Gavankar and Diggs, provides one of the few mysteries of the movie. In flashbacks, we find that Colin was a bouncer who was convicted of savagely beating up a white guy (with the help of Miles). Val witnessed this beating. And while Miles wasn’t sent to jail, Colin was (them the rules). And much like the above perceptions I mentioned, Colin is never able to shake a reputation from one bad night, never able to shake his parole status, his ex-con status, or his black status.
These judgments color every decision he makes throughout the film. Like many blacks, he does things with the knowledge that he is black. He is a stranger in a strange land. Much like Do The Right Thing, Blindspotting is filled with these micro-decisions, which are made through a prism. Decisions that are trials and moments of drama within the larger drama. He’s aware of the fear that shakes when a cop car slow rolls behind. And to abate those fears, he uses verse and rhyme as a therapeutic tool. He describes his current life, his need to stay out of jail, and in one of the more poignant scenes, the past.
His freestyling scenes, scenes which I’ll examine in greater depth in a later post, are stylistic goldmines. They give us the inner thought of the character, without a hokey voice over. They tell us more about his fears and wants better than any form of dialogue could.
Diggs’s freestyling is also accompanied by Casal, who in one of the more stylistically gaudy scenes is a prosecutor rapping in front of an all black jury who are chained with Colin to the justice system. Seeped in red, the sequence is a music video placed within a film. Narratively and stylistically it’s a brilliant fever dream.
And as the film builds to an ending that is at once cathartic and a bit of wish fulfillment, when Colin confronts the officer who shot that black man in the middle of the street, we are also held within the same fear. We are also privy to this exorcism of demons, an exorcism of black anger born from 500 years of grief. This cleansing is done in conjunction with a separate storyline involving Sean (Ziggy Baitinger), Miles’s son, as he’s also passed down those same rules by his black mother, Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Sean is taught to put up his hands and say, “Don’t shoot!” And even though Blindspotting hands us that moment of pure catharsis, it’s done knowing that it’s just a moment. Racism didn’t end because Colin confronted a police officer. It still continues today, still continues even after the three days of parole, and continues for this generation and the next generation. Blindspotting has its cake and eats it too, which isn’t a bad thing when the cake has been kept from you!
Special note that I’m putting at the end of my reviews for the next month:
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