In psychology, a black-and-white drawing known as Rubin’s vase poses a visual puzzle in which the brain perceives one of two images — either the outline of a vase or two faces posed in profile — but can’t see both at the same time. Take that phenomenon one step further and you get “Blindspotting,” not just a handy term for humans’ inability to look past stereotypes and appreciate the full complexity of others, but the most exciting cinematic take on contemporary race relations since “Do the Right Thing” nearly 30 years ago. The brainchild of Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, two hip-hop artists turned outsider-voice dramaturges, this explosive big-screen collaboration marks a rousing and incredibly timely choice to kick off Sundance 2018, with great potential to serve as a cultural touchstone in months to come.
Diggs is already something of a known commodity, having earned a Tony award for his spitfire double-duty as both Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in “Hamilton.” But “Blindspotting” was Casal’s project to begin with, and he does the fiercest rhyming in a film that isn’t quite a musical, but transitions ever so naturally into sung-spoken verse whenever the characters have something truly passionate to impart. (A spoken-word savant, Casal performed on HBO’s “Def Poetry” back in the day.) Here, the charismatic real-life friends play black-and-white besties who work for a moving company that brings them into contact with the city’s nouveau riche. And though the two have clearly got one another’s backs, there’s undeniable tension between Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) that’s bound to erupt before the movie ends.
So while “Blindspotting” doesn’t build to a spontaneous Bed-Stuy block riot the way Spike Lee’s firebomb did, first-time director Carlos López Estrada’s equally stylish pic packs powder-keg potential of its own, whisking audiences to the opposite coast, where this unconventional buddy movie dynamically captures the many forces — racial and economic, especially — now boiling over in modern-day Oakland. It was here, on New Year’s Day 2009, that a BART officer shot and killed unarmed Oscar Grant, whose story inspired the movie “Fruitvale Station.”
Nearly a decade later, the specter of police brutality still haunts the community, simmering under nearly every scene. The threat feels all the more palpable in a film that centers on ex-con Collin, who served time for a violent crime (the eventual reveal of which stands as one of the film’s undeniable highlights) and is now just three days from the end of his year-long probation. “Blindspotting” uses that ticking clock to supply a raw undercurrent of suspense to Collin’s everyday existence, since even the slightest altercation with Oakland cops could land him back in prison. And the stakes are ratcheted up further when a seemingly uneventful late-night drive makes him an eyewitness to a cold-blooded police shooting.
Rather than expressing immediate outrage, Collin ducks his head and drives on, eager to forget what he’s just seen and get home in time to satisfy his curfew. Yet he’s unable to erase the incident from his mind. But this is Oakland, where police-inflicted violence is practically a fact of life, and where walking down the street with a gun in your pocket (as Collin does in one particularly unnerving scene) is cause enough for a cop to shoot.
Tonally speaking, one might expect the incident Collin witnesses to steer the film into full-blown damn-the-system mode, but “Blindspotting” is an anomaly among social-justice stories, recognizing that every one of the issues it confronts — from police brutality and racism to gentrification and class conflict — is far too complicated for a single film (much less two characters) to fix. In a stroke of combined wisdom and humility, rather than pretending to have the answers, Casal and Diggs are content to pose the questions, relying on their considerable wit and comedic charm to present such tricky topics in refreshingly engaging fashion.
Meanwhile, director López Estrada has the good sense to stay out of the way of the material, resisting that first-film temptation to show off at every turn, and instead making choices that support the script’s heavy themes and risky tone — which still allows for plenty of impressive visual signatures, including a quick-cut motif that keep the story clipping along. Oakland is a city bursting with color, from street-corner murals to the way the locals express themselves, and “Blindspotting” hones in on that vibe and heightens it, as in a scene where Miles hustles curling irons to a local hairdresser.
This may be a movie about two dudes, but the female characters make powerful impressions, asserting their values whenever Collin and Miles make boneheaded moves: When an inexcusably reckless Miles brings home a gun, his young son horrifyingly mistakes it for a toy, inspiring a furious diatribe from his wife, Ashley (“Hamilton” vet Jasmine Cephas Jones). At the moving company HQ, Collin’s ex, Val (Janina Gavankar), proves similarly resolute, refusing to fall for his flirtations until he demonstrates he truly is the reformed and enlightened soul his parole officer expects.
Over the past decade, no shortage of films have dealt with modern American society’s rampant man-child problem, often treating this epidemic of immaturity as something cute and worth celebrating. “Blindspotting” takes a more responsible attitude: Watching Collin and Miles together, we come to realize how these two friends actually encourage one another’s bad behavior. In order for either to evolve into socially responsible adults, they first need to take an honest look at the state of their own friendship — a stunning confrontation that unfolds almost like a back-alley rap battle. And then there’s the film’s actual climax, which comes on the heels of several intense tête-à-têtes, and dares to express itself in verse.
At one point, the duo considered writing “Blindspotting” entirely in rhyme, although the script’s final recipe features just the right balance between traditional prose and elevated poetry. There’s enough spoken-word to pitch the vibe above street-level realism (an asset, since so much of the film was shot on real Oakland locations), while remaining true to the spirit of the San Francisco Bay Area, whose unique mix of cultural literacy (from hip-hop to many of the great Beat writers) and political engagement (the Black Panthers were born here) makes it possible to weave articulate talking points into everyday conversation.
Members of the nouveau riche tech-world may be currently colonizing Oakland neighborhoods, but Diggs and Casal identify with an entirely different demographic and want the audience to do so, too. How often have we seen headlines about African-American youths beaten or shot by cops and actually identified with the fear and frustration that an entire segment of our society feels by simply walking the streets of their own neighborhood? How often do news reports frame such incidents to vilify the victims after the fact? “Blindspotting” encourages audiences to look beyond surface prejudices and really see their fellow citizens for the first time. If ever there was a film to open America’s eyes, this is it.