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In ‘Blindspotting,’ Daveed Diggs wrestles with gentrification and race in Oakland, California

The film marks his triumphant debut as a screenwriter

Blindspotting is a film about gentrification that never stops screwing with its audience.

It opens with establishing shots of Oakland, California, set to Giuseppe Verdi’s joyful “Drinking Song” from La Traviata. But it closes with the menacing, bass-heavy tones of “Not a Game,” a rap song by the film’s stars and co-writers, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal.

That dichotomy is emblematic of the whole film. For 95 tense minutes, Blindspotting careens from levity to horror. One moment, its protagonist, Collin, played by Diggs, is frozen with fear at a stoplight as he witnesses a police officer shoot a fleeing black man in the back. Minutes later, Collin is joshing around with his white homeboy Miles (Casal), Miles’ partner Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and the couple’s son like everything is fine. Soon enough, the audience understands that what’s unnerving to it is normal to Collin.

Directed by newcomer Carlos López Estrada, Blindspotting provides an immersion into what it feels like to be black, feared and constantly watching your back. It accomplishes this by following the most nerve-wracking days of Collin’s life: his last three days on probation. If Collin can just mind his curfew and not get arrested, he’s a free man. And yet so many things about Collin’s life could send him back to jail. Is he going to get arrested while hotboxing with friends who are waving around loaded and unregistered guns? Will he get pulled over for running a red light when there’s no oncoming traffic and the signal seems like it’s never going to change?

Collin is trying his best to straighten up and fly right. And that means he’s embracing some things that make Miles bristle. He drinks $10 green juice from the same corner store where Miles buys loosies for $1. He’s vigilant about making his curfew and staying within the boundaries of Alameda County while he and Miles work for a local moving company. He’s not so wedded to the old conventions of fast-changing West Oakland.

Meanwhile, Miles owns a T-shirt that says “Kill a hipster/Save your hood.” He’s furious that the local fast-food joint has ceded its menu to the invading health-conscious hordes. The default burger is now vegan; the fries are now potato wedges. Miles hates it all. He and Collin may be bound by class, but they are separated by race. And as much as Ashley and Collin refer to Miles with the N-word, there’s an unspoken understanding: They can say it. He can’t.

What makes Blindspotting compelling is that it’s not didactic. It’s not a traditional message movie. Its most insightful moments come when its characters defy stereotypes to reveal the absurdities of race and the wrongheaded assumptions it so often informs. It borders on farce — or it would, if the stakes weren’t so deadly.

Blindspotting makes terrific use of Diggs’ talent for rapping. Diggs is best known for originating the roles of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in Hamilton. (Jones played Peggy Schuyler in the same production.) But before Broadway stardom, Diggs was a member of the experimental hip-hop group clpping. In Blindspotting, his and Casal’s charisma fill the screen every time they ease from conversation to verse during moves, freestyle-narrating their way through their days hauling everyone’s stuff from one place to the next.

Blindspotting takes its name from a word Collin makes up to help his psych-major ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar) remember the concept of Rubin’s vase. Basically, when a person looks at Rubin’s vase they either see two faces or a vase but not both simultaneously. The viewer has to blind herself to one to spot the other, hence “blindspotting.”

But Blindspotting is also a nod to Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting, about a group of friends in Edinburgh, Scotland, who are disenchanted with the stuffy conformist choices that capitalism has foisted upon them. The famous “choose life” sequence from Trainspotting is a screed about the various material opiates to which capitalism fosters addiction: jobs, cars, big-screen televisions, etc.

Instead of material opiates, the ragamuffins of Trainspotting choose heroin. In Blindspotting, Val has chosen life, and she’s constantly frustrated with what she sees as Collin’s inability or unwillingness to do the same. The opposite of life in Blindspotting isn’t heroin, though. It’s violence. The dark humor of both gives the films their sticky appeal.

While Blindspotting takes inspiration from Trainspotting, it also offers a critique of it by pointing out how the ability to wallow in nihilism is a luxury in itself. For Miles, it’s a luxury afforded by his whiteness. It hangs in the air as an unacknowledged truth through most of his and Collin’s friendship. At least, it does until Miles makes a decision that’s so stupid it endangers all of the black people whom he loves most and Collin confronts him in a dark parking lot.

Estrada captures the raw instability of the scene with a hand-held camera, jaggedly circling the two men as they face off. Collin excoriates Miles for his inability to see how his whiteness, no matter how much he tries to mitigate it with gold fronts and sick bars, has granted Miles immunity from facing life-altering consequences for his stupidest behavior.

In the end, it’s up to Miles to figure out that he doesn’t have to choose life — because it’s been given to him over and over and over again.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.