It felt fitting to learn that Blindspotting stars and writers Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal met on the slam poetry scene at Berkeley High, because I experienced the film the way I do most slam poems. Blindspotting, a festival darling now expanding nationwide, is stylish, clever, passionate, relevant — and yet there’s a screeching earnestness to it that keeps me from falling entirely in love.
This is surely a matter of personal taste, but it’s hard for me to entirely relate to the artistic gesture of the slam poem, which is imprinted in Blindspotting‘s DNA. I understand the comedic gesture, to build tension and then to shatter it; to explore emotions by deflecting, disarming, and deconstructing. Slam poetry seems to strive for almost the opposite, to amplify, to take a feeling and live in it, unblinking. As Werner Herzog says, Za poet must never look away. Well, some of us find that level of eye contact unnerving.
Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, Blindspotting stars Diggs as Collin, a “big black guy with braids” (as described by multiple friends) working for a moving company in Oakland, trying to keep his nose clean on his last three days of probation. He works with his best friend, Miles (Casal), a white guy with neck tats and Macklemore hair, who wears a grill in his bottom teeth when he’s away from his black wife and son, and who could generally be said to have a “hood pass.” Collin’s ex, Val (Janina Gavankar) works the front desk while studying for her psychology degree and occasionally hectoring Collin about needing to outgrow his towniness (Oakland being known colloquially as “The Town,” in contrast to San Francisco’s “The City”). Meanwhile, the moving job gives Miles and Collin a window into the inner lives of the characters populating a rapidly gentrifying Oakland.
Oakland is having a bit of a moment, as we like to say — the setting of Black Panther, Sorry To Bother You (Boots Riley’s masterpiece), and now Blindspotting, all the work of home-grown filmmakers. Blindspotting’s Oakland pedigree is even more pronounced than the others, since there’s scarcely a character in it whose outfit doesn’t advertise “Oakland” somehow. When Collin witnesses a police-involved shooting (partly inspired by Oscar Grant, the subject of Fruitvale Station, according to Diggs and Casal in various interviews) Blindspotting weaves a police brutality subplot into its story about a changing Oakland.
Movies are almost always better when they’re about a specific place, and Blindspotting has a facility and familiarity with local slang and archetypes an outsider couldn’t fake, explained in broad character vignettes reminiscent of Spike Lee’s equally loving portrait of Bed-Stuy in Do The Right Thing. Blindspotting‘s poetry imprint also frequently comes in handy here — it’s hard to beat a snappy rhyme when it comes to explaining something slickly and succinctly.