“Blindspotting,” the directorial debut of Carlos Lopez Estrada, stalks the streets of Oakland with a heightened, spoken-word flow, passionately freestyling on race, police brutality and gentrification through a searing story about two friends: one black, one white.
Though stylistically scattershot and often overstated, the funky rhythm of “Blindspotting” undeniably finds a pulse. That’s overwhelmingly thanks to the chemistry between its two talented stars — Daveed Diggs, the “Hamilton” Tony-winner, and his longtime pal Rafael Casal — whose characters’ relationship, like in a Tennessee Williams play, steadily simmers until it boils over in an emotional, theatrical showdown.
Diggs plays Collin, who has just days until his probation is over for a violent incident vaguely referred to as a “fire technicality.” He and Miles (Casal), his more hotheaded lifelong friend, are Bay Area movers who trade poetic versus along their routes while cursing the influx of hipsters to their once grittier neighborhood.
Collin is the cool, composed one, trying to lay low and get his life back on track. Miles, with a grill in his teeth and righteous fury at the changing face of Oakland, is buying a gun to protect his girlfriend and their young son. Their paths feel increasingly divergent, even as their devotion to one another remains deeply, sweetly sincere.
“We got kinda a Calvin and Hobbes thing going on,” says Miles of their rapport.
While Collin is stopped at a red light on his way home one night, a black man runs in front of the truck, turns down the street and, just after pleading not to be shot, is mercilessly gunned down by a white police officer who’s standing just outside Collin’s window. Collin is too fearful to come forward, but the incident shakes him. In one of the movie’s more vivid digressions, Collin dreams of himself standing trial with the murderous cop as his judge, while choking on bullets. In the daytime, Collin regularly jogs through a cemetery, as if he’s trying to outrun the deaths of young black men all around him.
As you can tell, “Blindspotting” isn’t shy about channeling topical concerns into hard-to-miss symbolism. There are coincidences, too, that stretch plausibility, as Estrada juggles lowkey scenes full of Oakland flavor with heavier thematic moments. The ride can be a riot, especially when Utkarsh Ambudkar drops in as a hyper, awe-struck passerby to relate the story of Collin’s arrest. (Sample line: “Who knew hipsters were so flammable?”)
Diggs and Casal, a spoken-word artist, wrote the film together, and they once considered doing it entirely in verse. That musicality remains in the film’s DNA. On the appeal of his freestyling, Miles says: “They like the bounce of it.” Blindspotting” bounces, too, skipping scene to scene like it’s going track to track. But you can feel the movie start to impose too much on itself by the third act, when it was better just riffing.
Still, it’s hard to remember a recent movie that so powerfully distilled social issues into a single relationship. “Blindspotting” is a buddy movie, at heart, about friends pulled apart by forces outside their grasp. Collin and Miles badly want to ignore the differences created by their skin color, but it gets harder and harder for them not to acknowledge their divergent experiences of privilege and justice, eventually leading to a back-alley reckoning. Oakland’s identity issues become their own.
Diggs, who played Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in “Hamilton,” is quite obviously an equally talented film actor, so comfortably sliding from fiery monologues to deadpan comedy. (In one scene, the indelibly-haired Diggs gets a perm.) He and Casal together are electric, and I only wish “Blindspotting” didn’t so easily distract itself from its central pair.
But there’s an upside to the film so eagerly jumping from anguish to slapstick, from social drama to buddy movie. “Blindspotting” is, like the Oakland it so dearly loves, always many things at once.