Oftentimes, real life isn’t full of heroes and villains—it’s full of imperfect individuals trying to make do with imperfect circumstances, and wounding each other in the process. That’s a sentiment that comes across beautifully and poetically in Blindspotting, a new film that examines a complicated friendship set to the backdrop of heightening racial tensions in an increasingly gentrifying Oakland.
Collin (played by co-writer Daveed Diggs) is kindhearted and quiet, and trying desperately to get through his last three days of probation without going back to jail. Miles (Diggs’ co-writer Rafael Casal) is a young dad with a comparatively stable life, but he also has an angry streak and is prone to blow-ups and confrontations. Collin is black; Miles is white. And—surprise—Collin is typically the one who faces consequences when the two best friends get in trouble, often because of Miles’s reckless behavior.
Through the guys' day-to-day work as movers, Blindspotting does a brilliant job showing gentrification as an ongoing process; they help an art gallery owner pack up his space, and clear out an old Victorian where a black family used to live. The film doesn't let the viewer escape the sobering realities of the housing crisis, but the two friends' quick-witted back-and-forth provides much-needed comic relief throughout. The culture clashes between new and old Oakland—like the guys' friend Dez (Jon Chaffin), whose side hustles include driving for Uber and selling illegal guns, or the $10 green juice at the liquor store—are some of the funniest parts of the movie.
But the film's humor often functions as laughter to keep from crying, and Collin and Miles’s radically different journeys navigating their hipster-fying city illuminate great truths about race in Oakland—and other cities in America where homeless encampments and craft cocktail bars exist on the same block. In a way, Blindspotting is like a controlled study. Miles and Collin come from similar class backgrounds, went to the same schools and even have the same job. But their different ethnicities drastically alter how they’re treated and perceived, and the tension that grows between them as their lives change is one of the dark comedy's most emotionally poignant threads.
Miles, the white friend, strives to fit in with the mostly black community he grew up in. With his slang, grill and neck tattoo, some people read him as a poser, so he constantly feels the need to prove that he's really from The Town.
But despite his unquestionable Oakland cred, there are telling moments where Miles’s whiteness makes him blind to, and sometimes callous towards, other characters' struggles—struggles that don't directly affect him because of his race.
One of these crucial scenes happens when Collin comes over to Miles’s place to tell him that he witnessed a police officer kill a young, black man on his drive home the day before. Miles brushes him off and quickly goes back to roughhousing with his son, Sean. “I’m a tough guy! I’m a tough guy,” Miles makes his kid repeat while egging him on to pummel Uncle Collin with punches.
Miles seems oblivious to the intense emotions Collin is dealing with after witnessing the murder; to him, it's just one of many police shootings that have made headlines in recent years. His lack of sensitivity is apparent throughout the film. Later, when watching the news about the shooting, Miles loudly talks over his girlfriend, Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who is black, as she’s processing the racialized violence on screen. The moment is quick and subtle, maybe not enough to call Miles out if you were in the room. But as the film progresses, a distinct pattern of behavior emerges, and tensions between Miles and Collin reach a fever pitch.
Though Miles and Collin work together every day, their lives exist largely on parallel, separate tracks. As the clock counts down to the end of his probation, Collin is paranoid that he’ll find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and wind up back in the system. The film poignantly articulates the tension behind every move he makes; how a police car driving by at night might not be as big a deal to a white person without a record, but, to Collin, elicits hair-raising, heart-palpitating fear that he’ll lose everything if he makes one false move. Characters like Collin's halfway house supervisor articulate the words "convicted felon" with gravity, as if it's a brand, a weight, that Collin must now bear.
Meanwhile, Miles has a chip on his shoulder because he sometimes gets mistaken for a white gentrifier. It’s easy to empathize with his anger that his city is changing; its culture and history are being erased; and fellow Oakland natives all around him are losing their homes. But the ignorant ways Miles goes about acting out his righteous anger only expose more of his blind spots about race.
While Miles’s worst fear is that he’ll be mistaken for a newcomer with a tech job, Collin is afraid that a paranoid white person stereotyping him as the “big, black guy with dreads” (as one character describes him) could cost him his freedom, or even his life.
Despite these clashes of black and white, Blindspotting is anything but black-and-white. There are many positives to Miles and Collin's friendship, too, and it’s complicated. Miles isn’t just a caricature of a blustering, blundering white guy; for all his rough edges, his realness is redeeming. Collin is also imperfect, and he has his reasons for keeping Miles in his life.
Blindspotting isn’t by any means light moviegoing fare, but Diggs and Casal manage to pull off a hilarious, fast-paced comedy adventure, thanks in large part to a very funny supporting cast and director Carlos Lopez Estrada’s striking use of visuals and physical comedy.
Blindspotting is no basic gentrification allegory, where the message is plainly written on the wall. It shows human relationships at their messiest and most hilarious, and has the power to make one think critically about how one’s actions impact others on a macro and micro level.
Blindspotting opens in select theaters July 20.