When Billy Bob Thornton won an Oscar for his screenplay, Sling Blade, he cited advice he’d once been given by legendary director Billy Wilder: if he wanted a great acting role in a movie, he’d better write it himself.
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal must have gotten the same memo. The two Bay Area performers—actors, singers, rappers and poets—have written themselves a couple of terrific roles in their remarkable movie, Blindspotting, a love letter to the diverse culture and community of Oakland. Both actors turn in virtuoso performances as friends confronting issues of race, class, identity, and their own volatile, longtime friendship.
Far from a typical crime drama about violence on the mean streets, it’s much more intricate, rich, and satisfying. Director Carlos López Estrada, in his feature film debut, makes bold, stylistic choices in every frame. And while the story can be intense, it’s told with plenty of sharp humor as the filmmakers celebrate the cultural vitality of the city they love.
Collin (Diggs), who is black, and Miles (Casal), who is white, have been best friends since they were 12, and grown up together in the neighborhood. Collin is on probation (for a crime that is not revealed until late in the movie). With only three days left to serve on his sentence, he’s looking forward to moving out of the halfway house where he’s under strict curfew and resuming his life—if he can just stay out of trouble.
Not so easy, with Miles in the picture, who’s prone to making scenes when he feels like a line has been crossed. Which happens a lot in their day job driving a moving van around the city, where they mostly pick up the discarded remnants of previous lives—old furniture, family photo albums—and cart them to the dump so the houses can be gutted and gentrified by the new class of “white hipsters” being lured to tech jobs in the Bay Area from places like Portland.
Collin inadvertently misses his curfew by a few minutes one night, when an incident involving a white cop and a black fugitive plays out alongside his van, putting him under even more intense scrutiny. Matters are further complicated when Miles acquires a gun, for the “protection” of his girlfriend, Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and their young son. Meanwhile, Collin tries to warm up his relationship with his ex, moving company receptionist, Val (Janina Gavankar), which cooled when he went to prison.
But it all adds up to something way more interesting than a gangsta melodrama. Inveterate rhymers, Miles and Collin can’t help improvising sly verses just walking down the street together, observing life. (Although in the electrifying finale, the rhymes are much more harrowing.)
Director Estrada keeps the action popping right off the screen: Collin’s nightmare plays like a music video from Hell; on his morning run past the cemetery, he envisions black victims standing silently by their headstones. When the nature of his own crime is finally revealed in flashback, it’s a scary clash of race, culture, and simmering tension, yet the narration by two men of color who saw it all is raucously funny. (The white hipster involved is variously referred to as “Neil Patrick Harris,” and “Portlandia.”) But it also illustrates one of the movie’s major themes—no matter how deeply immersed Miles is in the ethnic culture of the community, he’s accorded an extra degree of privilege because of his race.
Diggs is warm, pragmatic, and surprisingly explosive as Collin. (Diggs won a Tony in Hamilton on Broadway while this project was seeking funding.) Casal’s Miles is the smooth operator, peddling discarded items with his honeyed verses. With the easy rapport of the longtime friends they are in real life, they’re consistently entertaining, even as the movie ramps up to its intense, yet transcendent conclusion.
**** (out of four)
With Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. Written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. Directed by Carlos López Estrada. A Lionsgate release. Rated R. 95 minutes.