‘Blindspotting’ (2018) and the Hardships of Fitting Into a World That is Rejecting You

Blindspotting is an impressively layered and prompt story in a time when the world has finally opened its eyes to all its flaws and shortcomings. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal – long time friends and the initial writers and producers of this decade long project – respectively play the roles of Collin and Miles, two men who grew up together, working for a moving company in the evolving city of Oakland. We meet them at a specific moment in time, their past is revealed to us in a very organic way and we witness them walk through life with an honesty and a rawness that makes it familiar to us.

The movie alternates between comedy and drama, and navigates subjects like gentrification, the US prison system, toxic masculinity, gun violence and systemic racism in an intricate series of dialogues and everyday life scenes. Verse and heightened language are uniquely woven into the storytelling process, making the film a rare experience. The key to it’s charm is how realistically it reflects Oakland, in all its culture and singularity, and how heavily it centers around the characters. Part of its realism lies in how close the project is to both writers, who have taken inspiration from their lives and those of people they know, to tell an authentic story and bring the essence of a city they love so dearly to the screen as accurately as possible. In an interview with Fast Company, Diggs explains, “We just didn’t write a movie about issues, we tried to write a movie about people and to portray them and the city of Oakland as honestly as possible and to make people as complicated and human as we possibly could. If we hold a mirror up to ourselves, we’re all dealing with all of those things all the time.”

Both of the characters’ environments and situations are shifting and their friendship is challenged when they are compelled to question their ways and rethink their position in a context in which they feel like they no longer fit. The tension in their environment builds and the rejection both these men experience brings their relationship to a turning point.

Collin is kneeling in front of a portrait of a tree fading onto a photograph of a house.
Image courtesy of Metropolitan FilmExport

Collin is a black man close to seeing his one year long probation end, after he was in jail for two months for assault. He resides in a small halfway-house apartment and has to fulfill a list of rules that, if ever broken, will lead him back to jail. He has had to learn to control his temper, and reexamine his tendency for confrontation, even if provoked. Black people are only given so little room to express their emotions as it is, but with a ‘convicted felon’ label stamped onto his back, Collin knows that any and all reactions can be perceived as overreaction, and put him in danger. Even though the police have targeted black population for decades now, the policing scene is changing along with the city of Oakland. Diggs explains that there is a tendency for the city to “police for the people bringing in new income”, therefore the core communities of Oakland are the ones most targeted, as opposed to new, richer residents.

The topic of Collin’s identity as an African-American man is tackled when, in order to make a business deal with Miles, he gets his braids taken out and his hair straightened. He justifies his temporary new hairstyle by claiming it was “profitable to do so”, a clever double-entendre about him having to water down his cultural appearance. Later, when his ex-girlfriend Valerie (Janina Gavankar) is redoing his hair, she implies that he would look less blamable without his braids, a statement he counters by saying that it’s not always the “black guy with the dreads” who is responsible.
He is conflicted between upholding his identity and playing it safe by blending into what society expects from him. The movie confronts racism in its normalized, systemic form, and exposes its character to the psychological toll that comes with being a black man who is conscious that his cultural expression wrongfully makes him a target to stigmatization. This is exacerbated considering that Collin is faced firsthand with the effect this phenomenon has on black lives, when he witnesses an unarmed black man, Randall (Travis Parker) get shot down by a police officer.

Valerie sitting on an armchair and braiding Collin’s hair, who’s sitting on the floor in front of her.
Image courtesy of Metropolitan FilmExport

Collin is actively targeted as a black man, and is actively trying to stay out of trouble, now that he is considered a criminal in the eyes of the law and of society itself. This turns out to be harder than expected, because of his close relationship with Miles who is as impulsive as they get. He picks fights wherever he can find them, something Collin can no longer afford to do. Miles is a white man who grew up in a majorly black community alongside Collin and has done all he could to fit in, from the way he dresses to the way he talks and behaves. Casal describes him as a “minority among minorities” who has learned to make space for himself and build his own identity. But as a white man, he will never face the kind of accountability and profiling that black people are burdened with. As a matter of fact, he participated in the fight that put Collin in jail, except he got away with it. And while he is not completely tone deaf to his best friend’s situation, he ends up putting him in danger without realizing it.

Valerie’s character comes into play when she criticizes Miles’ irresponsibility. Valerie is constantly telling Collin that this friendship will most likely get him back into jail, or even killed. But her character isn’t solely one dimensional, and there is a reason for her hostile position. In an interview, Gavankar gave some insight about the way her character behaves in instances like the conversation they had about Collin’s black identity while she was doing his hair. Gavankar says, “We [immigrants and children of immigrants] feel this thing, a responsibility to uphold the sacrifices that our parents have made for us to be in this country and receive and strive within these gifts. That means that you have to put yourself first in your own growth.” This is the reason why her character distances herself from Collin after his incarceration, and why she advises him to put himself first as well.

The thing is, Miles’ anger isn’t one dimensional either. When the demographic in Oakland starts to change, Miles feels less and less safe, and decides to buy a gun in case he ever needs to protect his family. In the recent years, the Bay Area has experienced some severe gentrification, where people with higher incomes have been moving in, causing the displacement of previous residents and contributing to drastically changing the landscape of cities. This process threatens to rid communities of their own history and character. In an interview, when asked about that theme, Casal explained that the communities who first inhabited these places don’t benefit from any of the financial gain that comes with it. He highlights the complex feelings he shares with his character about the whole turnover. Miles’ resentment comes from a sense of rejection and betrayal, because he is risking being mislabeled and misunderstood, he feels that he has to prove himself to everybody all over again.

Miles and his partner Ashley (Jasmine Cephas-Jones) sitting at the kitchen table, looking upset.
Image courtesy of Metropolitan FilmExport

As part of a moving company, Miles and Collin are immediate witnesses of this process and even participate in it, by emptying homes of all they are, in order for them to be broken down to the bones and freshly renovated. They are, as Diggs points out “active participants in gentrifying their own city” and have to watch as it is sold off to the highest bidder. The two characters feel marginalized in a place that they have known all their lives.

Blindspotting takes its title from Valerie who studies psychology and comes up with slang words – a nod to the Bay Area’s great influence in originating slang – to memorize certain concepts and definitions. That term is the one she finds to remember Rubin’s vase, an ambiguous image in which you either see two faces facing each other, or a vase. The image is ambiguous because you cannot perceive both at the same time, one figure being the other one’s background. She chooses ‘blindspotting’, explaining that “you can look at something, and there can be another thing that you aren’t seeing”, thus generating a blind spot. She goes on to say that your brain will always be compelled to see one thing or the other first, because of how your life experiences have conditioned you to see things, and to change that you would need to retrain the way you think.

Collin and Miles are in their moving uniforms. Miles has a badge that reads ‘Commander Miles’ and Collin’s one reads ‘Commander Smiley'.
Image courtesy of Metropolitan FilmExport

There are a lot of layers and subtleties to Blindspotting. The more time you spend with the characters, the more your attention is brought to things you didn’t notice before. What you might first perceive as Miles being a reckless and bad friend will turn out to be a man trying to look out for himself in an environment that doesn’t validate him anymore. And it takes a while for both friends to see each other in a different light and understand where the other is coming from. It isn’t until Collin is given the chance to confront the cop that killed Randall (in what is one of the most intense scenes out there) that Miles understands the deep-seated anxiety his friend has been manifesting for a long time. Similarly, Collin doesn’t realize how imprudent Miles’ actions are until the latter starts a fight at a party and starts pointing his gun at everyone, regardless of the consequences.

The concept of “blindspotting” brings out the complexities of the characters and situations we are faced with, and also applies to the way information is presented to us nowadays, in a sense that we often only see one side of a certain story. The most striking example is police brutality and its portrayal in the media; when a black man is murdered, on the off-chance that he might have gone to jail, his narrative is completely written out, and he is nothing but a nameless figure without a legitimate story to be told. And when it comes to criminality and misconduct in impoverished neighborhoods, the blind spot originates from the inequality in opportunity and the neglect that their residents are presented with.

Valerie’s psychology textbook in which Rubin’s vase is illustrated, under it is written ‘the image is fundamentally ambiguous. People perceive a vase or faces but not both at the same time’.
Image courtesy of Metropolitan FilmExport

There is a lot more to be said about this concept in regards to the movie – as Casal pointed out “this sh– is layered, people” – but everything is developed and progresses in a way that feels instinctive and consistent. Friendship and loyalty are at the core of this project, and the topics surrounding it are woven very subtly to create a realistic experience tainted with important topics that affect our everyday lives. In the end, Collin and Miles have to confront the reality of their changing, at times marginalizing, context and its effect on who they are as individuals, and as friends. All of these elements make Blindspotting into a piece that we can identify with, in which we can recognize fragments from our own reality. And it is even more convincing considering how much of their own lives the writers have poured into the project. Blindspotting is playful in its comedic and artistic execution, and is made all the more poignant by its depiction of very timely issues. It is the kind of film that paints such a singular picture that it will reshape the way you apprehend other movies.