To stare is to see.
Are we more than what others believe us to be? This question is unanswerable since perception is king and powerful enough to transform your identity. After all, how many times can you be blamed for something you didn’t or won’t do before you break and think you might as well? If you’re to be judged as that which others presume you to be, why not earn their ire? Why not lean into the stereotype or slander or racism? Being better and proving people wrong is the job of saints and more and more it’s revealed that the ones we do it for are anything but themselves. The only people we should prove wrong are ourselves. And yet without external validation, it’s often difficult to see a point.
Making matters worse is an ever-changing world evolving in hypocritical ways. Built by systems and rules that prevent equality, those with power appropriate what they like about those without despite never giving them credit and more often than not punishing them for those very same things. Our country leeches off the oppressed while subjugating them, vicariously fetishizing their way of life while fearing them when approaching too close. We see surfaces because of an ever-escalating sense of paranoia bred by an ever-shrinking landscape of multi-racial, -cultural, -religious, and -gendered existence. We’ve become emboldened by ego, each caught in stasis out of time and place. We ignore our surroundings and take claim over them without worrying about the displacement of natives. I guess maybe we haven’t changed at all.
So why wouldn’t Carlos López Estrada‘s film Blindspotting start with a split-screen juxtaposition of life in Oakland before and after its in-progress gentrification? The same activities are occurring in much different ways and those left reminiscing about the good old days risk worse than obsolescence. The result of this systemic rehabilitation (read theft) is, baldly, eradication. Suddenly those who bleed Oakland are outsiders in their own city. A guy like Collin (Daveed Diggs) whose black skin and braided hair used to signify inclusion is now transformed into a thug cops recruited from out of town blindly see as a threat to those making this place “better.” A guy like Miles (Rafael Casal) whose swagger and earned appropriation provided him respect is now simply dismissed as another white joke.
Dysphoria infiltrates the minds of these citizens driven from their homes, culture, and identities. They’re made to feel as outsiders within the only place they’ve ever lived. And since the Hollywood system is ruled by depictions of homogeneity and affluence, you’d be surprised how many people don’t understand. The movies show us the charmed lives of those moving in rather than those pushed out. They portray usurpation as compromised assimilation—smiles for saviors rather than compliance for survival. This is why Diggs and Casal (real-life childhood friends) wanted to write their view of true life in the Bay Area of the twenty-first century. They sought to show what it’s like to exist in a world transform overnight and the violence and fear cultivated by the new social order.
They pull no punches either as they delve deep into the darkness of a problematic America while also reveling in the absurd hilarity of the forced cohabitation of the socio-economic divide’s contrasting extremes. So one second we’re watching Collin, Miles, and their friend Dez (Jon Chaffin) quizzically try to understand their local Kwikway’s rebranding from greasy beef and shoestring fries to a vegan burger and potato wedge joint and the next we helplessly witness (thanks to a beautifully composed frame with a side-view mirror vantage of what’s off-screen) a scared black man screaming “Stop! Don’t Shoot!” just before an officer (Ethan Embry) squeezes the trigger four times. It’s the future figuratively erasing the past through culinary delights as age-old prejudices literally erase a young man’s future.
What’s to be done? What can Collin (who witnesses this tragedy alongside us) do as a man who fits the racist description of a “thug” with two days left on a one-year probation marking him as a convicted felon for the rest of his life? Will a jury believe a man like him or the cop with a bottomless wealth of spin? The brilliance of this event’s orchestration to highlight these questions is that we’re unaware of the circumstances. We don’t know why Officer Molina chases his eventual victim or why the latter is running. This ambiguity is intentional because it reveals how meaningless that exposition is. Removed from the media projection (photos in dress blues versus orange jumpsuit) and the official report, what we see is murder.
A war is fueled as Collin suffers from PTSD-laden rage and guilt. His ex-girlfriend (Janina Gavankar‘s Val) reminds him of the cost that comes with his appearance no matter whom he is beneath. And we experience it multiple times with him being remembered by bystanders as the aggressor despite Miles causing all the fuss. This in turn leads to pointed commentary on the latter’s intrinsic privilege. Miles is a guy who wants nothing more than to be himself without being labeled a poser in the process and yet it’s his inability to do so that could ultimately save his life. Because who will a cop shoot if he sees these two guys beating up on someone else? Who will he/she believe poses the greatest threat on first glance?
But there’s more in play than just Collin and Miles against the law. There’s the shift in perception that can ruin a relationship. There’s the misplaced anxiety of a man (Miles) believing he’s protecting his mixed-race family (Jasmine Cephas Jones‘ Ashley and Ziggy Baitinger‘s Sean) by buying a gun instead of making them less safe—from themselves and external forces. And while the dialogue can be very heavy-handed and cyclical through callbacks bolstering its insights (Wayne Knight‘s artist explaining the metaphor of oak trees being cut down for progress and Val’s psychology studies), it needs to hit us like a ton of bricks. Blindspotting is teaching us real world lessons that subtlety will only confuse. Some gray still remains, but not enough to muddy its message’s necessary intent.
And Diggs and Casal use what they know outsiders love to deliver it. They use rap to hear their pain—the music heightening reality, augmenting emotions, and providing a hook that earns attention from those who refuse to give black men and women any other platform besides entertainment. Estrada also utilizes dream sequences to amplify the surreal headspace these characters inhabit wherein right and wrong must be redefined to survive. In a land run by people still presenting the American Dream as being just a few years of hard work away, we need more art daring to reveal their lie. When a large swath of the population requires pamphlets so children know the target on their back is bigger than their friends, equality will continually remain a fallacy.
 Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) in BLINDSPOTTING. Photo by Ariel Nava
 Wayne Knight as “Patrick” in BLINDSPOTTING. Photo credit: Ariel Nava
 Val (Janina Gavankar) and Collin (Daveed Diggs) in BLINDSPOTTING. Photo by Ariel Nava