Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Blindspotting - a film review

Blindspotting is the story of Collin, a black kid from Oakland of middle-class origins who finds he has come to be defined as a thug, and his lifelong friend Miles, a white kid from Oakland who finds himself rejected by upwardly mobile blacks because they can’t accept his identification with the black world he has grown up in as authentic. To them he is white, and therefore privileged. Miles, whether through confusion or second nature, imposes his street cred through violence, and now finds himself an outsider in both worlds. The title refers to the fact that two people can be looking at the same image and seeing it completely differently. One might say that one of the possible images sticks in one's "blind spot."

Vase or faces?
Collin is played by Daveed Diggs, who was born half a mile from my house – five and a half blocks – at Alta Bates Hospital. Which means technically he was born in Berkeley, although all the bio notes I’ve seen on him say he’s Oakland born and bred. The Oakland line is two blocks further south. Diggs, if you’re into pressing this quibble, is also a graduate of Berkeley High School. He and his friend, Rafael Casal, also a local, who plays Miles, wrote, produced and play the leading roles in the film. Together they rap their way through this account of several days in the life in one of America’s troubled inner cities characterized by racism, guns, violence and fear and distrust of the cops. All of which may have less of an impact on their lives, in the end, than gentrification.

Collin and Miles beat somebody up. Miles managed to escape punishment, but Collin was caught and sent to jail. When the story begins, he is trying to stay out of trouble in the last few days of his probation. Miles is living with his girlfriend and their young child whom he believes he has to protect by buying a gun. We learn through flashbacks that he’s the one that started the fight that got Collin jailed, and we are prepped to believe this gun is going to get Collin in trouble again, perhaps even killed and the story becomes a tense race against time.

Things get more complicated when Collin stops for a red light one night and witnesses the killing of a black man by a white cop. Because his entire purpose is to keep out of trouble, he fails to report what he has seen.

To say more would be to spoil the film experience, and I think, if you haven’t seen it, you should see it not simply as a sociological study in racism in America but as tense drama, well-written, well-acted theater.

I’ve read the Rotten Tomatoes reviews as of today, plus a few others, and I’m struck by the fact that nobody so far has recognized Blindspotting as a kind of musical. One in which the main characters don’t get all sentimental about Old Man River or the height of the corn in Kansas, but instead launch into rap. It’s modern-day opera. Filled with life-and-death themes and heroic challenges, the rap pieces coming like aria commentaries.  If you like your stories realistic, the hip-hop performances may strike you as overdone. And in one or two places in the movie (I’ll leave you to discover them on your own) they are. But so is Madam Butterfly’s despair and Tosca’s suicide. There are times when the story line becomes background to the performance – in this case words spoken with sharpness and rhythm, a kind of tap-dance with words that can blow you away.

And while I’m going on about opera, and the new world of rap “musicals”, another strong point of Blindspotting, in my view, are the tableaux, the shots of graffitied walls and modern houses tucked between Victorians. Not kabuki, exactly, but feasts for the eyes. Kudos to cinematographer, Robby Baumgartner. And to director, Carlos López Estrada.

Daveed Diggs may not be listed among the most noted rappers of today, but he’s got to be one of hip-hop's best promoters, thanks to his role in Hamilton and now to Blindspotting. If you want to see what he’s capable of, I recommend listening to his commencement address at Brown in 2017. 

The San Francisco Bay Area, which includes San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, is a microcosm of the demographic changes in America which helped to create the Trump phenomenon. In 1940, when I was born, Oakland was 95.3% white. Fifty years later, in 1990, whites comprised only 32.5% of the population. These days, due to the influx of the superrich spillover from Silicon Valley, wealthy whites are once again pushing the poor out, and that means people of color to a large degree. In Oakland today they comprise 34.5% of the population; blacks are down to 28%, having lost 25% of their numbers since 2000; Asians are 16.8% and Hispanics are 25.4%.

Liberals celebrate these kinds of figures; white conservatives tend toward panic. However you react to them, the figures alone don't tell the story. For that you need story-tellers. Oakland’s story has been told before, in Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, and Fruitvale Station. Blindspotting is an artful addition to that list.

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