Late at night, a young black man walks alone in a dicey neighborhood in Oakland.
A police squad car going in the opposite direction pulls a U-turn and approaches the young man.
The young man has a gun. It is not his gun. In fact, he took it away from someone in order to prevent possible tragedy.
But that doesn’t matter right now. If that squad car comes to a halt and an officer approaches the man, it’s not like there’s going to be casual chitchat about the origins of that gun.
The squad car’s spotlight shines directly on the man — who has done nothing wrong, but knows if things go sideways, he will wind up in jail, or worse.
He tenses up. We wait to see what will happen. We have to remember to breathe.
This is one of at least a half-dozen psyche-shaking, consciousness-rattling moments in first-time director Carlos Lopez Estrada’s “Blindspotting,” one of the most memorable movies of the year.
Like “Do the Right Thing” some 30 years ago, “Get Out” last year and “Sorry to Bother You” right now, “Blindspotting” is a searing, intense, sometimes wickedly funny and boldly honest look at race relations, and how we perceive one another — and the horrible mistakes we make based on certain stereotypes that are formulated from the time we are children.
“Blindspotting” isn’t a musical, but at times the characters launch into spoken-word raps, because there’s just too much emotion and too many things happening for them to employ traditional dialogue. The film alternates between a gritty, docudrama approach and a heightened reality, becoming a fable of sorts. The stylized moments make it easier to go with the dramatically convenient plot turns, including one monumental coincidence that leads to the story’s climactic scene.
This isn’t a procedural about life in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Oakland. It’s a prose poem that packs a lasting and powerful punch.
Longtime friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal conceived the story and co-wrote the screenplay, which was inspired by their experiences together in the Bay Area.
Diggs (who won a Grammy and a Tony for his dual role of Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the original production of “Hamilton”) plays Collin, who spent two months in prison for his part in a stupid fight (are there any smart fights?), and is now in the final days of his probation.
Just three more days of staying out of trouble, and Collin will be free from living in a halfway house, free from a nightly curfew, free to travel outside Alameda County.
One big problem: Collin’s best friend since childhood, his co-worker and his constant companion, Miles (Rafael Casal), is a lightning rod for trouble. Miles is funny and loyal and has a heart of gold, but he’s the kind of guy who never walks the other way when trouble is brewing. His first reaction is to throw kerosene on a fire.
Collin is black and Miles is white. Miles is the one far more likely to instigate and escalate, but as “Blindspotting” reminds us on numerous occasions, if trouble ensues and the police show up, Collin is the one who is more likely to be arrested or shot. He’s a physically imposing black man with dreads in a “changing” neighborhood. To certain mindsets, he’s suspect even when he’s not remotely a suspect.
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“Blindspotting” moves at a brisk pace and raises the dramatic stakes with each scene; director Estrada has a masterful touch for pacing.
Collin is haunted by the memory of witnessing an Oakland cop (Ethan Embry) shoot and kill an unarmed man in the back. Miles is devoted to his wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their young son, but his best intentions are sometimes insanely tone-deaf.
As Collin and Miles navigate their days together working for a moving company, they’re alternately amused and ticked off at the gentrification of their corner of Oakland, where the neighborhood bodega is now selling green juice at $10 a bottle, the local fast food joint now specializes in vegan burgers, and hipsters with long beards and gimmicky bicycles breeze past them.
Between the sometimes heavy-handed points about race relations and deep-seated prejudice, “Blindspotting” serves up some hilarious comic relief, most notably Utkarsh Ambudkar’s breathless monologue describing the infamous fight that landed Collin in prison. At moments like that, “Blindspotting” sings with energy and creativity.
Even more unforgettable are the moments when we feel the weight of Collin’s world. He is haunted by a nightmare in which he is on his daily run and he goes past a cemetery — and dozens of young black men are standing in front of their graves, staring into his soul. It’s a scene you’ll never forget.
Daveed Diggs is brilliant as Collin, a good man who has made mistakes and has paid for them, and now wants nothing more than to live a good and decent and exemplary life. Rafael Casal is an electric presence as Miles, the classic “bad news of a best friend” who is fiercely loyal to Collin and always has his back — but could be Collin’s downfall.
Please see this movie.
★★★★ Summit Entertainment and Codeblack present a film directed by Carlos López Estrada and written by Rafael Casal & Daveed Diggs. Rated R (for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references and drug use). Running time: 95 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.