REVIEW: Blindspotting an Explosive Racial Comedy and Oakland Love Letter

Blindspotting is an explosive racial comedy, a love letter to Oakland, and a jumpstart to the movie career of its star, Daveed Diggs, who co-wrote the screenplay with co-star Rafael Casal. Directed by first-timer Carlos Lopez Estrada, the film is set during the last three days of a year-long probation for Colin (Diggs), who served prison time for something he regrets and that he believes no longer reflects who he is. (We learn all about it later, don’t worry.)

Colin has been living in a halfway house (11 p.m. curfew), working for a moving company, trying to stay out of trouble while he counts down the days. This is difficult when his hustling best friend and co-worker, Miles (Casal), is a goof who “acts ghetto,” waves a gun around, and picks fights with strangers. After witnessing the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, Colin begins to realize — and be resentful of the fact — that as a large black man with corn rows, he’s under more scrutiny than his play-acting, grill-wearing white pal Miles, who gets away with a lot. “YOU are the ‘nigga’ they’re out here looking for!” he yells at Miles in exasperation one night when he (Miles) has finally caused enough trouble to be noticed.

So there’s this underlying tension throughout the movie, the unspoken worry that something will happen to screw up Colin’s probation — something that will be Miles’ fault, we fear. That gives a thrill of suspense to the pointed comedy, which sometimes gives way to pointed commentary as Colin and Miles grapple with their racial identities and how those identities affect their friendship. They also lament the gentrification of Oakland (indicated by hipsters on tall bicycles) and Colin’s botched relationship with ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar), for whom Colin’s prison sentence was the last straw. Colin is reformed now, but it’s hard to convince the world of that. “You are now a convicted felon,” another black man at the halfway house tells him. “You are that until proven otherwise. Prove otherwise at all times.”

Rafael Casal gives white pretender Miles more depth and humanity than his buffoonish character might have gotten in other hands, particularly when his irresponsible behavior starts to catch up with him. But it’s Daveed Diggs’ film through and through. The actor and rapper, already a Tony- and Grammy-winner for “Hamilton,” is charismatic, sympathetic, and funny, all of which becomes crucial in the intense climax, when an extraordinary plot coincidence threatens to knock the film off the rails. I acknowledge the egregiousness of the coincidence, but for me the film is saved in that moment by the sheer magnetism of Diggs’ personality and the righteous anger of his character — which is expressed in freestyle rap, of course. As I understand it — and I understand a lot of things better now that I’ve seen Blindspotting — that’s how they do it in Oakland.

Grade: B+

1 hr., 35 min.; rated R for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references and drug use

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Eric D. Snider has been a film critic since 1999, first for newspapers (when those were a thing) and then for the internet. He was born and raised in Southern California, lived in Utah in his 20s, then Portland, now Utah again. He is glad to meet you, probably.

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