Movie Review: ‘Blindspotting’ scribes turn real friendship into Sundance hit

This image released by Lionsgate shows Daveed Diggs, right, and Rafael Casal in a scene from "Blindspotting." (Lionsgate via AP)

WASHINGTON — It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

This weekend, the acclaimed indie flick “Blindspotting” opens in D.C., bringing a refreshing movie-going experience that mixes laughs, tears and fears for a biting social commentary.

Released from jail after a bar fight, former Oakland bouncer Collin (Daveed Diggs) tries to stay out of trouble during his last three days of probation. This becomes tricky when his fiery best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) pops off with reckless abandon over the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification. All the while, Collin pieces his life back together by driving a moving truck and getting his dreads braided by his ex-girlfriend (Janina Gavankar) to keep the flame burning.

Diggs, who played Marquis de LaFayette and Thomas Jefferson in Broadway’s “Hamilton,” is a revelation in the way that Michael B. Jordan was in Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” (2013), the Sundance hit that enabled “Creed” (2015) and “Black Panther” (2018). Played with quiet demeanor and a heart of gold, Diggs’ character routinely raps under his breath, authentically stumbling over his own “improvised” lyrics unlike the polished gold of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

More impressively, Diggs spent the past 10 years writing the script with lifelong best friend Casal, sort of an Oakland version of Boston buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who penned roles for themselves in their Oscar-winning script for “Good Will Hunting” (1997). Instead of riffing over Fenway Park, these guys debate Derek Carr’s Raiders leaving for Vegas.

The fact that Diggs is black and Casal is white makes for fascinating exchanges. On the one hand, we get hilarious buddy comedy as they debate the gross taste of kale smoothies. On the other hand, we get powerful observations on race, as they discuss biased mug shots on local TV news, the use of the “N” word in pop culture, and “The Talk” that too many African-American parents must have with their kids to keep them safe during routine police stops.

In the script’s most unique twist, the white Casal is the most vocal critique of gentrification, lamenting how transplant hipsters falsely assume he’s “acting black” simply for wearing a mouth grill, having tattoos and speaking in the born-and-raised accent of his neighborhood.

Likewise, plenty of moments remind us of the struggle of being black in 2018 America, as Diggs holds his breath in the red-and-blue flashing lights of a cop car, then suffers trippy nightmares where he visualizes a field of young black males standing above their graves.

These sequences are among the many dynamic touches by debut director Carlos López Estrada, who shows impressive control right from the opening credits, a symbolic series of split screens juxtaposing gritty bodegas on the left with gentrified Whole Foods on the right.

This thematically ties into a later scene where the characters discuss the famous optical illusion of Rubin’s Vase, where you either see a vase or two human faces, depending on your perspective. The idea is that we are all born with inherent biases in how we see the world, thus we must teach ourselves to see things from the opposite, and equally valid perspective.

They dub this phenomenon “Blindspotting,” a fitting term considering it’s the blind spot of Diggs’ truck where a black man is gunned down by police. This shocking moment haunts Diggs each time he pulls up to a stoplight or sees a police car. His internal cocktail of fear, rage and inequality builds to a climatic showdown between Diggs and the trigger-happy cop, a confrontation that audiences are craving to see — if the script can find a realistic way.

It’s here that the film suffers a blemish in its contrived finale. The problem isn’t Diggs rapping his final monologue — this is a stylized choice properly set up in the script and in our beloved “Hamilton” memories. Rather, it’s a far-fetched coincidence that the two movers just happen to arrive at the home of the very cop in question. Thus, their basement showdown rings false, but thankfully, the underlying message is powerful enough that it doesn’t torpedo the movie.

Either way, the overall result is a refreshing blend of comedy, drama and social commentary that deserves to be seen by as many folks as possible. It’s that rare film that makes you take a step back and see the world through different eyes, an optical illusion that we must teach ourselves to flip, reconditioning our prejudicial crime blotters into eye-opening blindspotters.

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