The entertaining, troubling “Blindspotting” piles a tower of ideas and issues on its plate and urges us to dig in. Oakland, urban gentrification, multi-racial friendship, Oakland, police killings of unarmed black men, macho insecurity, Oakland, inner-city gun violence, the problems faced by ex-cons re-entering society, white privilege, the struggle of women to be more grown-up than their men, and $10 kale smoothies are some of the items that come under the film’s microscope. Did I mention Oakland?
Did I also mention it’s a comedy, at least until it’s not? The laughs come from the heady, profane rush of banter between the movie’s two leads and best friends, Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal). Collin is black, weary, and three days from the end of a year’s probation following two months in jail for an odd but definite crime we’re eventually regaled with in third-party flashback. Miles is mouthy and hot-tempered, a tatted-up loose cannon who gets away with a lot because he’s funny and he’s smart but mostly because he’s white.
The two work for a moving company, and their jobs are a magic-lantern show of West Oakland changes: older artists and multiracial families moving out, hipsters and house-flippers moving in to gut, re-model, re-sell. One of the most elegiac moments in “Blindspotting” has Collin walking quietly through the rooms of an emptied-out home and finding remnants of the lives that flourished there: a wedding photo, a scrapbook, someone’s incongruous backyard boat.
Diggs and Casal are themselves childhood pals and sons of Oakland; they wrote the script together and cast the central friendship as a slightly less-lethal update of the Harvey Keitel/Robert De Niro dynamic in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” (There’s a scene at an upscale house party where Casal’s Miles threatens to go the full Johnny Boy.)
Diggs, who has a lean but adorable charisma that here comes under major stress, has already found fame in the dual roles of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Broadway’s “Hamilton.” Casal, who like his friend is a rapper/poet/spoken-word performer in addition to being an actor and a writer, has the juice to go far, too.
Between them and director Carlos López Estrada, making his feature debut after a run of shorts and music videos, “Blindspotting” represents a breakthrough — and the movie’s nothing if not self-conscious about it. The best parts are the breezes of real, observed life that breathe through many of the scenes — the street corners, the storefronts, the rough camaraderie of guys hanging out, the wary warmth of women like Miles’s wife, Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and Collin’s ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar), who works the moving company’s front desk and is studying for her psychology degree.
It’s those and other lived-in grace notes that put over the film’s sense of place: the offhanded revelation that most of Oakland’s namesake oaks, seen on every street sign, have been cut down, or the muted tragedy of Miles’s young multi-racial son (Ziggy Baitinger) having to learn the phrase “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot” as a matter of course.
But the filmmakers’ ambitions are on display, too, in ways admirable but also over-obvious (and sometimes as tangled as the movie’s explanation for its title). Early in “Blindspotting,” Collin witnesses the shooting death of a young black man (Travis Parker) at the hands of an Oakland cop named Molina (Ethan Embry), and the event rightly traumatizes both the character and the film, regularly returning to trip up the narrative like a broken tooth. The film’s nightmare sequences feel literal and lugubrious, though — like moments from a music video, not coincidentally — and right at the movie’s dramatic climax, an artistic gamble is taken that will strike you as either intensely powerful or forced and overwrought.
The arguments around that gamble began when “Blindspotting” debuted to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January and are certain to flare up now that the film is in commercial release. Speaking personally, the scene kicked me right out of the movie and highlighted the well-intentioned but too-often heavy hand of the writers and director as they spell out their message of despair, resilience, and hope rather than trusting we’ll be able to read it for ourselves.
Whatever you think of the climax, you should still see the movie, for its urgency, for its performances, and for the vibrant portrait of a community being erased in the names of progress and profit. “Blindspotting” is the third film in 2018 to unfurl partly or wholly in Oakland. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” is a superhero blockbuster with one eye to the kids in the streets, while Boots’ Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is a satirical live-action cartoon whose most outrageous touches sometimes strike a sharper nerve than the heartsore realism of Estrada’s film.
Watchthem all. It’s the only way to see the people in them and to start to see the people for whom they’re standing in.
Directed by Carlos López Estrada. Written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. Starring Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Javankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 95 minutes. R (language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references, drug use)