In many neighborhoods across America, gentrification is an ever encroaching menace, changing buildings and the faces of communities even as it potentially brings better spaces and services to underserved blocks. The Oakland-based characters of director Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting explore these hate-love-hate relationships between the complex issues of gentrification as thoroughly as it examines the intersections of race, police brutality and trauma. It sacrifices neither wit nor story to achieve its message.
After his arrest, Collin (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs) longs for life before his time in a halfway house. At least he’s lucky enough to work with his best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal). They drive around a rapidly gentrifying Oakland, emptying the junk inside foreclosed homes to make room for new, wealthier tenets. The task can be emotional for two longtime residents who wearily watch their old neighborhood change.
However, Collin’s life changes one night at a traffic stop. While impatiently waiting for the light to turn so he can make curfew, Collin is startled by a black man running in front of his truck. A white police officer chases after him. In the blink of an eye, the man is murdered by the cop’s bullets, and Collin is left traumatized, haunted by the image too often heard about in the news. Miles, who is white, gets angry but isn’t as affected by the event as Collin. Their friendship fractures, revealing the unspoken privilege Miles has as a white man in Oakland. He can assimilate into the black culture around him but will never be targeted by police like Collin.
Despite the serious topics in play, Blindspotting keeps a sharp sense of humor. Near the beginning of the movie, Collin finds himself in the backseat of a drug dealer’s customized car as Miles buys himself a gun to protect his family. Their cue to leave is when the driver gets a ride-share request. In another moment that looks inspired by Spike Lee’s School Daze, Miles tries to smooth talk his way into selling old hair straighteners in a beauty salon. It’s a funny call and response between the stylist, the women getting their hair done and the determined salesman.
But the heart of Blindspotting is in the richly developed friendship between Diggs and Casal’s characters. They trade dialogue like poetry, with a rhythm and rhyme that’s different from their conversations with other characters. The effect solidifies their longtime bond on-screen without explaining it. For most of the movie, they share the screen in close proximity to each other, stuck in the car or in the confines of a rundown home. When their connection breaks, it feels even more jarring, with half the screen feels empty.
Even in moments of brevity, Blindspotting aims to say something about the struggle of different characters. In one striking sequence, Miles’ young child finds and begins to play with his dad’s gun. Collin, Miles and his wife cajole the child to hand over the weapon, but the tense scene sets off a debate about the place of violence in the family’s home.
In other sequences, Collin has recurring nightmares about the murder he witnesses and tries to confront the anger he feels at the cop who fired the killing shot. During a normal run, Collin feels himself the target of the next rogue police officer’s bullet. Later, while passing a cemetery, Collin faces the history of black men’s deaths in America, unveiling the racial trauma left by the past and the present. The end contains a tonal key change that may not work for everyone, but Digg’s remarkable performance gives the moment its much needed intensity.
The Oakland of Collin and Miles’s childhood may have been consumed by gentrification, but they stay in the city in the hopes to be a part of its future. The film’s empathetic lens instills the feeling that the places on screen may already be gone by now, turning Blindspotting into a kind of documentary of the area that also shares its story: one of survival in the face of trauma. Fractured, but not beyond healing. Since its Sundance premiere, Blindspotting has given its audiences much to talk about — a conversation that may only grow now as the film hits theaters.
Monica Castillo is a writer and critic based in New York City. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Variety, The Village Voice, RogerEbert.com, Remezcla, NPR and The Boston Globe. She completed her master’s at the University of Southern California as the school’s first film critic fellow.