Blindspotting and the Permanence of Police Brutality in Hip Hop and Black Culture

Note: this post has some serious spoilers ahead. I strongly urge you to watch Blindspotting first, watch it several times in fact, before you read below. 

Blindspotting, starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, directed by Carlos López Estrada, follows the path of two lifelong friends: Colin and Miles. Colin is trying to make it through the final days of his parole, during which, he witnesses the heinous shooting of a black victim by a cop. The film, set in Oakland, is a fusion between prosaic and rhymed dialogue. The rhymed dialog, or verses, owes much of its origins to the fabric of hip-hop for political means and Slam poetry. Indeed, there are two segments in the film that demonstrate this: the disrepaired house and the final confrontation between Colin and Officer Molina. The two instances combine as a cyclical reminder of police brutality that has permeated in art and black culture, which has served to dehumanized those living in the affected communities. Blindspotting combines these traumas, with Casal and Diggs’s rhymed-verses to paint a picture of remembrance and defiance as vibrant as Oakland.

The first instance occurs when Colin and Miles are called to a derelict home. The home is a fix-em/flip-em to a market of new white homeowners, part of the gentrification that features heavily in the film. In the abandoned home, Colin passes by pictures of elderly black inhabitants, sits in a chair, and flips through their photo album. Colin’s verses are not only a lament to this lost lineage, but also a scathing judgment of the “colonizing” whites who have begun to encroach upon Oakland. “Hope they know young niggas haul out my belongings when the enemy comes,” he disparages. This line prophesizes Colin’s future, when he’s the dead individual whose once inhabited home is rummaged through. The use of “enemy” is clear in the context of the verse. That is, the gentrifying whites. However, in the context of the film, the interpretation may be broadened to gentrifying whites and the police.

“Hung up in the hood till I’m discarded. Don’t know who I’m spookin. I’m the one spooking hardest./Probably cause I know I’m just here to help the harvest./After that I’m a target,” muses Colin. Here, he almost presupposes himself as a collaborator. The job of mover presents a precarious tightrope, as he’s at once the hunted and the harvester. Most telling is Diggs’s delivery through this. It’s not vengeful, but a remembrance with acceptance, spiritual and metaphysical. Coupled with the gritty and witty delivery that hyphy brings, we get a sense of Colin’s mindset. This job isn’t new to him. He’s aware of the unemployment, the gentrification, the lost lineage, and the racial inequities, but can do little to stop it. Instead, he can only remember and honor the dead. He can only accept his fate and play within the rules for as long as possible until it’s his turn. In a system that offers little assistant, survival is a necessity.

Blindspotting in its most obvious form is the permanence of perception, specifically the title of “felon.” “You got stripes now/That ain’t Decoration/This is life now/ This your life now/This your life now/Till its lights out/Till its lights out,” contends Miles in a courtroom dream sequence. The irony of Blindspotting is that Colin’s felony status means little to how the police view blacks. Colin is viewed as a felon, no matter of prior record because of the color of his skin.

Most of all, it’s Colin’s confrontation with Sergeant Molina in the basement of the cop’s home that best exemplifies the early roots of hip-hop in relation to police brutality.

Often used as a voice of reckoning, for blacks to say to the police what they could never outwardly express, hip-hop has stood as the latent language. Because as the film progresses, and Colin is torn apart by the truth, by the death of this young black male, knowing that he’ll never have a platform to express himself, he slowly loses his emotional center. He questions his own humanity, even asking Val, his ex, whether she sees him first through the brutal assault he committed on a drunk white bro, or as the articulate and intelligent man we have come to know.

However, while hip-hop diverted from the political zeitgeist, Slam poets like Saul Williams have fed off political unrest to create seamless art. “We won’t be silenced,/no, the noise came from here/A never ending war will not be waged from here/The future is my home it all came from here/Police and sirens, guns are on parade right here,” retorts Williams to police brutality in “The Noise Came From Here.” This political bent has recently returned to hip hop through a host of artists, with Kendrick Lamar as the vanguard. “I love myself/When you look at me, tell me what do you see?/I love myself/I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police” Lamar espouses on “i” from To Pimp a Butterfly. Williams and Lamar each compose core components of the longstanding issue of police brutality and its permeation in the art of hip hop and Slam poetry. All of the above aren’t just retaliatory or violent, they’re self-affirming. They’re pieces of self-affirmation in an environment where that support is nonexistent, where cases like Oscar Grant happen.

Even when Colin is “afforded” the opportunity to confront the officer, he’s not “capable” of expressing his true rage through prose alone. Instead, he requires the free-form manifestation of spoken work to bring that “overflowing of spontaneous emotion.” One can match Colin’s long withholden rebuttal with the rhymes found in NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” “Comin’ straight from the underground/A young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown/And not the other color, so police think/They have the authority to kill a minority,” I-Cube accuses. Colin revitalizes it, adding new content and meaning to that, Saul Williams, and Lamar. Because while the power of the Black Panthers have ceased to be, while Oakland basks in the glow of the Golden State Warriors, the inequities of racial injustice remain.

The lack of translation between blacks and the oppressive forms of White America still exists. “I say it while I’m rappin’ nigga, cause everyone conditioned to listen to a rappin’ nigga,” sears Colin as he points a gun at the officer. In one line, he acknowledges the indebtedness blacks have to rap as a mouthpiece to demonstrate rage, yet its disadvantages. That is, if Colin wasn’t freestylin’ would this cop or anyone be listening to him? The disadvantage isn’t rap itself, it’s a culture that doesn’t value a black male’s voice except to be boycotted for a verse.

Nevertheless, unlike previous verses from the other artists, Colin’s verse isn’t fully retaliatory. “Ain’t too hard to figure that you probably ain’t felt the pressure of a nigga,/but you know what I ain’t never felt the pressure of a trigger./The difference between me and you is, I ain’t no killer,” he charges. Colin’s sole intent is for the officer to feel what he and many other black males and females have felt, even if the concept is escapable for the officer. “You might think you know what’s happenin, but you don’t feel it like we do/To feel it, it has to be you./Cut you, but you don’t know what the cut do,” Colin disdains. In the process, not only does he make the officer admit to his crime, he does so while morally dehumanizing the officer. Much in the manner that police brutality has dehumanized blacks as killers, drug dealers, pimps, and whores, Colin elevates himself while referring to the cop as the killer.

And while the officer’s apology is somewhat of a wish fulfillment, that is an officer admitting that he was wrong to kill a black male, the confession isn’t directed toward Colin. Instead, it’s directed toward Miles. The moment is one final singe of disrespect. So while Colin receives the cathartic release of confronting the cop, he doesn’t enjoy the fruits of that release. Instead, he must go on living to the next day. Because racism wasn’t solved when Colin pointed the gun at the officer. It was a small skirmish in a mostly one-sided war, an inch of ground won in the trenches, won in the basement of the “beast.” It’s a final adieu to a white audience that one hopes goes one step further thann the white officer’s half-stuttering apology. Meanwhile, we all hold our breath….

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