2018 has been a cinematic year of black empowerment. Black Panther kicked off the year with a bang as one of the highest grossing films of all-time with an almost entirely black cast and a mature exploration of problems facing black Americans today. While the film itself may not be quite as strong as the critical hype, its position as a form of empowerment is undeniable. Other filmmakers are carrying this flame forward in 2018, too. Boots Riley‘s Sorry to Bother You has applied a satirical and mildly sci-fi look at issues of class and race in America. It has debuted to critical acclaim and is now joined by another film: Carlos López Estrada‘s debut Blindspotting. Also taking place in Oakland, this is a comedy-drama about two friends living in Oakland during the final days of probation for one of them. It deals with issues of racial gentrification, racial identity, and even tougher political issues regarding racism in policing. With a biting wit, genuine relationships, and an unwillingness to flinch away from uncomfortable issues, Blindspotting marks its place as one of the best social commentary films this year.
Part of the film’s authenticity may come from its semi-autobiographical nature. The relationship shown between the two friends Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) is based on the actors’ own real-life relationship and their struggles growing up together in Oakland. They wrote the script together over the course of nine years. The film itself proudly screams its Oakland identity; it opens with clips of what appear to be real-life Oaklanders and goes on to cover the city’s iconography, music, and culture. Even the craziness of Oakland Raiders fans is displayed proudly. The presence of Oakland is important to the film’s messages and narrative, and López Estrada’s strong sense of setting is a stage for simply superb storytelling.
The alliteration above alludes to another admirable attribute: hip-hop and rap importantly inform the film. Without giving too much away, there are strong links between the movie’s message and its music, particularly the rapping of Daveed Diggs’ character. The film demands that viewers confront the ideas and stereotypes that people associate with rap and those who sing it. Estrada, Diggs, and Casal challenge how black voices are heard in society, and expose our cultural blindspots. On that note, if there is a weakness to the film, it may be the title. A scene near the end explaining the concept of blindspotting feels almost too on-the-nose. Yet the bluntness of the concept is part of the power of the film, and spelling out the themes may be necessary to make the point land. Or maybe not.
The film succeeds thanks to a high degree of authenticity throughout. Diggs and Casal have a wonderful rapport as friends, and the depth of their relationship and the way it is written provides a strong emotional core. They seem so real as to be barely acting, yet their relationship is general enough to encompass broad issues like stereotyping and cultural appropriation. Casal’s character Miles is a white male who grew up mostly with black peers. Use of the N-word, with and without a hard “R”, is maturely examined in the final third of the film.
Blindspotting knows when to get in your face. A police killing of a black man within the first 30 minutes of the film has a lasting effect on Diggs’ Collin. Estrada exhibits his directorial flair in a series of dream sequences and other visual oddities that showcase Collin’s guilt and pain. The ending of the film is especially powerful in the way it frames anger and sadness in a world marred by police brutality and excessive force. Even those critical of the “Black Lives Matter” movement may find themselves in tears by the end.
Blindspotting covers too much for one review to encompass. We haven’t touched on the skillful blending of humor with moments of jarring violence, or the movie’s excellent pacing. Suffice it to say, Blindspotting is a confident and powerful film debut from Carlos López Estrada. Its grounding in reality gives it a staying power that the more overtly experimental Sorry to Bother You may not have. Yet more than being a strong “issue” film, this is a great work of cinema. If Bresson or Fellini had been a black man from Oakland, this might have been among the neorealism films they made. This is not a movie you will be able to ignore after seeing. It will shake you and move you.