Living Just Enough for the City – Blindspotting

I had an odd observation while watching an advance screening of the new film, Blindspotting with my girlfriend last night. Earlier this year, through MoviePass, we got to attend an advance screening of Flower, which reminded me of Kevin Smith’s debut, Clerks, in that the joke about a girl sucking 37 dicks was essentially the main character trait of the title role. Similarly, this time, while watching Blindspotting, it occurred to me that the two lead characters, Collin and Miles (co-writers and childhood friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, respectively), reminded me a lot of Dantie Hicks and Randal Graves.

Basically, what I’m saying is that Kevin Smith is a genius and his influence should be all over modern cinema. Also, unlike FlowerBlindspotting is one of the best films of the year.

The basic plot is simple enough. Diggs – who recently won a Grammy and a Tony for his work in Hamilton – plays Collin, who has just completed a two-month prison sentence at the start of the film. He’s assigned to a halfway house for one year of probation. The film then jumps ahead to the final three days of that probation, and focuses on Collin’s attempts to achieve normalcy and stay out of trouble until he is a fully free man again. Casal plays his best friend, Miles, a white man that often talks more street than any of the other black characters around him. He has a wife, Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and a son named Sean.

On the first night of the film (three days left of probation), Collin is driving a moving van to his halfway house to make his 11pm curfew (he and Miles work as movers, and as Collin is the designated driver, he gets to commute with the truck), when he stops at a red light that just goes on forever. Before he can react once the light changes, a man runs in front of his truck, terrified, before running to the side. A pursuing police officer (Ethan Embry) arrives on the scene, and with little warning, shoots the suspect four times in the back, killing him. The cop and Collin then make eye contact before backup arrives and sends Collin on his way. News reports the next day report on a shooting of an armed suspect who was a former convicted felon. Collin knows that the victim was unarmed (or at least, no weapon was visible), but as a black man in America, and as an ex-con himself, he fears getting involved.

The next three days are spent trying to focus on work and keep himself out of trouble, and at the same time rekindle his relationship with Val (Janina Gavankar), who dumped him after his arrest, yet still runs the desk at the moving company where Collin and Miles work, and as such is a constant presence in his life. All the while, he has to deal with conflicting elements, including his own fear about betraying his community after watching a man die, his frustration at Miles for his general fuckery and gangster posturing (including buying a gun from a drug dealer early in the film), and trying to better himself while still maintaining his local identity in his quickly gentrifying hometown of Oakland.

First off, the characters of Collin and Miles are so richly drawn, and their dialogue so naturally funny, that their relationship is as organic as the kale smoothies Collin forces himself to drink. Given Diggs and Casal’s lifelong friendship, it should come as no surprise how lived-in the pair feels.

And yes, there are some serious parallels between these two and Dante & Randal. Collin is very much a mirror for Dante Hicks. He’s endlessly put-upon, finds himself in situations that could cost him dearly through no fault of his own, he desperately tries to figure out relationship issues and where he stands in the grander scheme of life, and he’s often the butt of the shenanigans perpetuated by his literal partner in crime. Similarly, Miles is just as much a free-spirited shit-talker as Randal Graves. Most of the comedy derived from mocking hipsters comes from him, acting as an audience surrogate (there’s a scene where he yells at an oblivious Whole Foods shopper blocking their moving van that is just so delicious it has to be fattening). He’s also an extremely charismatic hustler, selling second-hand items to homies on the street and salon owners with ease (a lot of these scenes make clear homage to some of the great comedies aimed at black audiences over the years, like Friday and Beauty Shop). Honestly, if you swap out Star Wars references for consternation at vegan hamburgers, they’re practically twins. Even their interactions with their moving clients feel like classic scenes of fucking with the customers at the Quick Stop.

Some may call this derivative, but there is plenty here to make these characters unique, and not just the much more urban setting (part of the inspiration for the film was Diggs and Casal wanting to do a more accurate and loving depiction of Oakland than most other films, and the movie opens with a great montage of all the walks of life in the city). Collin has connections outside of Miles, including Ashley, Val, his mother, and various other friends in the neighborhood. Also, he carries a much larger burden than Dante, having actually committed a crime to put himself in this situation – as his halfway house landlord reminds him, “You’re a convicted felon until you prove otherwise. And you gotta prove it every day.” – and he has legitimate terror and PTSD-esque visions of the policeman and the man he killed.

At the same time, Miles is essentially living a double life. Unlike Randal, Miles has ambition, and he actually aspires to prove his toughness when challenged by others. Meanwhile, he’s also a loving husband and father, trying to do right by his family. Even when he buys the gun early on, he plays up a gangster persona upon the purchase from the dealer, but privately to Collin he merely states that he wishes to have it as protection for his family. So despite his grandstanding nature and short fuse, there’s more depth to him than Randal.

Beyond the two leads, there’s just so much to love about this movie. The dialogue is some of the funniest I’ve heard all year, and it’s often coupled with a deft editing touch that makes some of the best jokes land even better than they would if just simply stated. There are hills and valleys in the suspense throughout the film as well, with director Carlos López Estrada perfectly balancing the light moments with the heavier material. One minute the entire audience is in stitches, the next we’re in fear for a character’s life, because Estrada can turn the mood on a dime.

There’s also some absolutely great commentary on race. The gentrification rants serve as good jokes, but every good bit of humor is rooted in truth. It starts from the very beginning, as Collin and Miles’ favorite burger joint reopens, but Miles is apoplectic that none of the food tastes the same. Collin eats “potato wedges” instead of fries, and dips them in “umami ketchup.” Miles’ burger is vegan because he “didn’t specify meat.” There are a lot of these moments, and they’re hilarious, but they also speak to the racial divide, because despite growing up in the hood just like Collin, Miles has to reconcile his own white privilege (limited though it is given his tattoos and grill) to avoid being lumped in with the hipsters. It’s a fine line he has to walk, and it often doesn’t work out well, but he realizes that he has a certain degree of impunity in his actions, because he won’t be automatically presumed a threat based on the color of his skin.

And from Collin’s perspective, there are some amazing moments of racial ambiguity. He can’t come forward as a witness to the cop killing because of his own criminal status and his race. He walks the streets with fear every time a police car comes near him. He sees visions of black people in hoodies standing in front of graves (possibly an allusion to Trayvon Martin) wherever he goes, as if every moment he doesn’t act is a betrayal of his own roots. And most profoundly, he’s able to question his own position as a black man, and what it means to be black, summed up in a marvelously insightful argument about the n-word.

It all comes down to our own inherent biases, delivered via Val, who is studying psychology. When you look at someone, what does your brain tell you about them? What perspective do you have, versus what might actually be happening? Sometimes it’s right there on the surface. For instance, throughout the film there are local news reports about the shooting where they identify the cop with a picture of him in dress uniform, while the victim (being an ex-con) is always shown in his prison jumpsuit. That’s bias. It presumes heroism on the part of the cop and guilt on the part of the victim, who can’t defend himself, what with him being dead and all. Sometimes it’s much more subtle, like the perception of someone’s clothes or mannerisms as a signal of their identity or community allegiance, and it’s wonderful how Diggs and Casal’s script, along with Estrada’s direction, makes it all come together with wit and organic character development.

And then there’s the music. Rap plays an integral part in this film, not just in the form of background music cues, but in the day-to-day repartee between Collin and Miles. As they go about their day, they interrupt their own conversations and jokes with freestyle lyrics that eventually get paid off in one of the most amazing scenes put to celluloid this year. I won’t spoil it, but if anyone tries to dismiss the moment as wish fulfillment, then I say fuck right off with that.

Do yourself a favor and see this movie as soon as possible. Given Academy patterns, I’m guessing that, at best, this will get a nod for Original Screenplay next year, but it’s so much more than that. I cannot stress enough how great this film is on just about every conceivable level! Diggs and Casal give absolutely brilliant performances, the editing is about as perfect as you can get, the writing is top notch, and Estrada’s directorial eye is amazing, especially considering this is his feature debut (most of his work until now being in music videos). Especially in a weekend where the other options are most likely mediocre sequels (to Mamma Mia!, The Equalizer, and Unfriended), take a shot on something original that should be in anyone’s reasoned argument for the best film of the year.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite onscreen pair? What is the deal with kale smoothies, anyway? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “Living Just Enough for the City – Blindspotting

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