Blindspotting deftly mixes realism with theatricality to portray the struggles of being black in the city, while Widows features a multi-ethnic group of women planning a big heist.
In a year when racially conscious American films grabbed the spotlight, two that have got a lot of attention (well-deserved) were Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. But there was another that deserved more credit, and that I liked even better. It’s called Blindspotting, directed by Carlos López Estrada—it had a fairly good run in theaters this summer, and now it’s streaming and on DVD. In my case it left town right when I was about to review it, so now I finally get to tell you about it.
Daveed Diggs plays Collin, a young African American man in Oakland, on parole after doing time for assault. When the film opens, he has only three days left in his parole. But Miles, his friend from childhood, played by Rafael Casal, is prone to boundary breaking, out-of-control behavior, such as buying a gun from a guy in Collin’s presence, which could be a violation for him. The two friends work for a moving company, and one night while driving the company truck, Collin witnesses a policeman shooting an unarmed black man. This incident begins to haunt his dreams and fuel his already active paranoia.
The two actors, Diggs and Casal, are actual friends from childhood in real life. They produced the film and wrote the screenplay, and the authenticity of their relationship really shows. Sometimes their interactions become so animated that they burst into spontaneous rapping—amazingly, this comes off as convincing, and not contrived, as you might expect.
Diggs plays Collin as thoughtful, quirky, and brooding, sometimes low-key hilarious. Casal’s character, Miles, is white, but he’s grown up in, and become so genuinely a part of, neighborhood life that he’s pretty much considered honorary black. Except—he can’t help but put more of an edge on than is necessary, to compensate for what people expect of him—in other words, he’s too volatile and short-tempered, which means trouble.
The ad campaign for the film tried mistakenly to make it seem like some wild “shoot-em-up” urban comedy/drama, but it’s really not that kind of movie. The humor is rich and clever and thought provoking. The drama arises from situations that seem very real, not just the police shootings, but the everyday negotiations people have to make to get by when they’d rather be treated with respect like anyone else. And the film presents a very strong picture of Oakland. Rarely do you get such a vivid sense of a particular city as you do here.
The title, Blindspotting, is not a take-off from Trainspotting, like I thought it was, but a psychological term coined by Collin for the habit people have of only seeing a part of the picture they want to see and not the equally valid other parts. Estrada and the two actors and writers also display a bold willingness to use overt theatricality, music and visions and dream sequences, to interweave with the realistic texture of the film. Blindspotting is one of the year’s revelations.
Meanwhile, in an example of shifting gears to explore different ways to make a film, British director Steve McQueen, who we last saw directing the Best Picture Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave, has shown that he doesn’t have to always create an earth-shattering epic, by doing a genre piece this time, a heist film called Widows.
When a gang of professional thieves gets killed during a failed robbery, three of their widows, played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki, are forced to plan a heist of their own to ward off the powerful crooks that want them to pay them back the money lost in the explosion. The rather complicated story has political implications, but more significantly, the women at the center find themselves constantly facing personal and institutional misogyny, so that the tale of the heist becomes also a tale of female resistance. Like a lot of heist pictures, the plot doesn’t bear much scrutiny—it is a crime genre picture after all, with some of the unreal and cliché aspects that this entails. On the other hand, this isn’t a smooth painless bit of fun like Ocean’s 8; the tension in Widows is real because the stakes are high.