From Brooklyn to Washington, D.C. to Atlanta, gentrification is taking over Black neighborhoods like crack in the ‘80s. While many people -- especially gentrifiers -- may see gentrification as a much-needed rejuvenation of formerly underserved communities, the critically acclaimed dramedy Blindspotting begs the question: rejuvenating for whom? From co-writers and stars Daveed Diggs (Hamilton, Wonder) and newcomer Rafael Casal, Blindspotting is a rap-infused, Oakland-based modern classic that uses clever rhymes and biting dialogue to explore issues of race, privilege, and gun violence. When Collin (Diggs) finally makes it to the end of his probation with only three days remaining, he witnesses the homicide of an unarmed Black man by a police officer and is tossed right back into a prison-like mental state -- trapped by the trauma that he incurred. Made to feel invisible by the pain he cannot express, yet hyper-visible by the permanent branding of “convicted felon,” Collin tries to navigate what has become of his living situation, love life, and friendship with his rowdy, yet loyal best friend and coworker Miles (Casal). In the first few minutes of the film, we are thrown into the gentrification-induced irony of three hood dudes -- two Black (Collin and a mutual friend) and one white (Miles) -- buying guns while chowing down on vegan burgers and potato wedges. While Miles maligns Kwik Way’s new plant-based menu choices as symbols of modern colonization and erasure, Collin welcomes at least giving it a try and shows the same openness to green juice -- albeit he only does so in hopes of impressing ex-girlfriend and manager Val. While both friends are from Oakland, and thus potential victims of the displacement and cultural extinction that giant tech companies and their well-meaning white liberal employees are causing, there is a vast difference in how they react to the ever-increasing signs of gentrification -- and that distinction is very important.
Collin lives life devoid of the white privilege Miles has. Despite the fact that both Collin and Miles participated in the assault of a haughty hipster in front of a nightclub, only Collin was sentenced to jail. When Miles obnoxiously yelled and honked at yet another gentrifier inconveniencing their day, Collin found himself on the receiving end of the blame. After Collin tells Miles that he witnessed the police murder an unarmed Black man, Miles incredulously asks why he did not report it. Miles was raised alongside Black people, lives in a Black neighborhood, and now raises a Black son with a Black woman, but he will never be Black. He will never be the first one to be questioned, much less arrested, much less killed by the police. He does not know what it is like to fearfully avoid speaking to the police -- even if it means aiding in the cover-up of a hate crime. For someone who is so aware of the privilege that upper-class white people wield, it is disappointing, yet unsurprising, that Miles has no idea the amount of privilege he has, even as a working-class white person struggling to send his child to a good school. Blindspotting is masterful in that it tackles gentrification, white privilege, and police brutality in a thoughtful, realistic way that does not create a preachy social justice cluster bomb, but rather shows how these issues are inextricably linked and can easily rupture the deepest of friendships.
In addition to its social commentary, Blindspotting also pays tribute to the unique musicality of Oakland and the city’s strong roots in hip hop. The Bay area’s signature sound -- born out of the poetry of the Black Panther Party, brought to the world stage by veterans like E-40 and Too Short, and further catapulted by breakout rapper G-Eazy -- is periodically invoked in the storytelling of this film. As Collin and Miles use their own love language of rhyme to talk about their aspirations as well as their worries, we are reminded of the power of hip-hop to build bonds and heal through self-expression. However, I would have preferred the final scene in which Collin and the cop face off to not be rapped. The Kendrick Lamar-style inflections that Collin uses in his voice transform the thoughtful dialogue into borderline-cheesy spoken word. There is already enough tension built into that scene; the monologue speaks for itself. Also, the movie deserved a stronger female lead. The too-cool-for-school Val’s short spurts of compassion were overshadowed by her refusal -- and inherent inability -- to place herself in Collin’s shoes. It is troubling that a film seeking to speak truth to power on issues of race and white privilege would write a willfully ignorant, racially ambiguous woman into a role played opposite a self-aware Black man. It was very hard for me to believe that Val, a woman who does not look like she has ever had to use a comb, was able to braid Collin’s entire head in one night. It is even harder to believe that Collin’s mother, who seemed to be a caricature of a Black Panther Party revolutionary, would have wanted Val and Collin to work out as much as the film let on.
Nevertheless, Blindspotting is one of the standout films of this year and one the standout films in a long line of cinematic works that forces us to come to grips with racism. Through classics, like Do the Right Thing and recent releases like The First Purge and The Hate U Give, it has become common, and rightfully so, to see Black people react to police brutality in protest, legal action, or physical self-defense. However, in reality, Black people are abused every day and often do not have the opportunity or support to fight back. In addition to seeing our counterparts slaughtered by the state, we have to endure racism on the job, in our schools, and within several other parts of society. Sometimes it feels like the only option is to try your best to move on and hope that you or your loved ones are not the next hashtag. Hopefully, after seeing Blindspotting, more of us will know that we are allowed to cry, whimper, talk about our post-traumatic stress disorder, and acknowledge -- as Collin does so poignantly in the final scene -- that we are not ok.