You’ve seen one of those photos before where you can’t tell whether you’re seeing two faces or a vase. It all depends on what you see first, a psychological test of what you’re wired to see. Once you see the other it’s difficult for some to flip back and forth as you get locked into a certain perspective.
This “Rubin’s vase” provides the central metaphor for Carlos López Estrada’s remarkable film Blindspotting. Tracking the last days of probation for Collin (Daveed Diggs) as he tries to keep clean for his last few moments of regulated behaviour he’s tested by the antics of his long time friend Miles (Rafael Casal) who always seems to be leading him inexorably to trouble.
The script, by Casal and Diggs, uses their hip-hop talents to craft a freestyle flow of images and events, crafting a remarkable mashup that deftly mixes drama, comedy and musical forms to create a remarkable blend. Drawing upon earlier experiments in this form from the likes of Spike Lee, Estrada and his collaborators manage to shift the mood of audiences as deftly as any DJ, pushing and prodding at various times to shift mood in sometimes quite radical fashion.
From the opening scene Digg’s character leaps off the screen, his charisma intoxicating in what’s surely the breakout onscreen performance for this former cast member of Hamilton. His role is the most complex but also easiest to engage with, his bristling intelligence and ease of character undercut both by moments of violence that plague as well as deep fears that we see expressed.
Casal’s role is likely to be less praised, yet his shifts are no less remarkable, and his character far easier to devolve into parody. Combined the two provide remarkably sympathetic, rich characterizations that border on the documentary, this despite the heightened use of lyrics-as-dialogue that elegantly provide both a theatrical quality akin to pentameter and an almost weaponized form of introducing both dialogue and commentary in a compact way.
The various communities of Oakland are represented, from the affluent to the up and coming, and some of the film’s most effective moments of commentary come from quiet scenes where the friends (movers by trade) enter abandoned houses to find relics of the past. Again, it all should feel heavy handed or trite, but it’s told with such passion that one can’t help be moved.
The entire film’s flow is disrupted with one particularly challenging scene late in the film. It’s a section that’s likely to heavily divide audiences, and one sure to be discussed well before the film even plays. That would be unfortunate, as within the context it’s a scene that feels paradoxically integral and separate from what comes before. One can debate about whether lifting this entire scene from the work would make for a better film but less powerful message, but it’s a section performed with such astonishing conviction from Diggs that it could serve as a short film all its own. Taking the middle ground, the scene is certainly jarring, to be sure, but as it develops it does gracefully find a way of reintegrating into what had been laid down before.
Save for this challenging moment, the rest of the work is a dance of delight between character and location. There’s so much joy and pain reflected in the way that these characters interact that one feels both the intimacy and immediacy of their daily lives. Praise to the rest of the ensemble that allow the leads to shine, as each feels almost as richly formed as the two main protagonists.
Yet in the end this is is Daveed Digg’s show, and justifiably so. His Collin is a tremendous role for him, demonstrating his theatrical and dramatic strengths combined with his musical flourishes in a way that’s downright electric. Thanks to Estrada’s steady direction, Casal’s fantastic support and a slew of Oakland tunes to situate it all (shout out for inclusion of Tower Of Power whose absence would have been cause for uproar!), Blindspotting feels like a phenomenon, a film that’s sure to not only engage with present audiences but for generations to come.
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