The term “blindspotting” describes a perceptual dilemma best illustrated by Rubin’s vase, that famous black-and-white image that tricks the eye into seeing either a piece of pottery or two faces in profile, but never both at the same time. As a metaphor for keeping your eyes and mind open, it’s a pretty good one: We all see what we want to see, but if we’re honest and open-hearted enough, we might be persuaded to see it the other way, too.
You will see a few different things when you watch “Blindspotting,” director Carlos López Estrada’s raucous and irrepressible debut feature. (Consciously or not, the title also evokes Danny Boyle’s 1996 movie, “Trainspotting.”) It’s a buddy comedy, a hip-hop musical and a cracked valentine to Oakland, the latter an ascendant subgenre recently enriched by Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” and Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.”
Like those pictures, “Blindspotting” embraces Oakland as both an object of love and a source of provocation — an opportunity to confront difficult, seemingly intractable problems of race, class and violence in contemporary American society. To say that the results feel wildly uneven is to suggest that the movie has done its subject some measure of justice. And its choice of targets feels unique and personal.
At the heart of the story are two longtime Oakland buddies: Collin (Daveed Diggs), who’s black, and Miles (Rafael Casal), who’s white. The two drive a van for the same moving company and spend a lot of their free time eating, smoking and freestyle rapping together. (Their friendship carries a faint, semi-autobiographical echo of the real-life bond between Diggs and Casal, who co-wrote the screenplay.)
But the pair might as well be their own living, breathing version of Rubin’s vase, given their strikingly complementary differences in temperament and perception. Miles, played with ferocious energy by Casal, is a loud, swaggering troublemaker, with a hair-trigger temper and a cavalier attitude toward violence; he wears his mouth grill and his multiple tattoos like statements of aggression.
Collin, by contrast, is cautious and mild-mannered, steering clear of anything that might get him in trouble, and for good reason. He’s already served time for his involvement in a crime (the nature of which is strategically withheld) and is in the last few days of a yearlong probation sentence.
Quite a bit happens over the course of those few days. Some of it has an episodic, sitcom-style flatness, as when Collin and Miles move boxes for a local art gallerist (Wayne Knight) or stop by a beauty salon to hawk some curling irons left behind by a customer. (Life for them is a steady stream of hustle and flow.) But much of it also forces Collin to consider his future and grapple with the external forces, visible and otherwise, that have shaped his history.
He tries to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, Val (Janina Gavankar), who disdains him and especially Miles for reasons that will become clear in due course. He hangs out with Miles and his wife (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their young son (Ziggy Baitinger) at the family’s house, where all four of them will learn that not even the happiest home is completely beyond the reach of real-world violence.
Worst of all, when Collin is driving home alone one night, he sees a white police officer shoot a black man dead in the street — and, not wanting to endanger his already precarious freedom, decides not to come forward as a witness. Diggs, who won a Tony for his performance in the Broadway musical smash “Hamilton,” quietly captures the swirl of emotions that seizes hold of Collin in that moment and continues to shake him long afterward: anger, grief and a helplessness verging on paralysis, compounded by the realization that the victim might just as easily have been him.
The strength of “Blindspotting” thus lies in its ability to make the political feel deeply personal, and to show how numerous competing aggressions, big and small, can turn a tense situation into a combustible one. Casal and Diggs are quick to poke fun, sometimes rather too emphatically, at the winds of social, cultural and economic change sweeping through Oakland in the wake of the Bay Area tech boom. Miles spends much of the movie’s amusing first half railing against hipster gentrification, the most egregious example being the pricey vegan offerings now on display at his beloved local burger joint, Kwik Way. The real Oakland seems to be retreating before his very eyes.
But Miles, concerned as he is with hometown authenticity, will soon see his own authenticity called into question. It doesn’t escape the movie’s attention that Miles’ identity, at once carefully constructed and entirely second-nature, has largely been conceived through the prism of various black cultural stereotypes. Miles wears this identity with a devil-may-care swagger and, conveniently, none of the constant fear or sense of personal risk that is Collin’s burden as a black man.
“Blindspotting” is rarely scarier than in those moments when Miles is confronted with the reality of his privilege, and López Estrada and his actor-writer collaborators are good at steering their tone from the broadly humorous to the deadly serious, with an intensity that can induce whiplash. What makes those moments so devastating — whether they hail from the past, as we see in a harrowing flashback sequence, or the present — is that Collin winds up quietly paying the price for Miles’ recklessness.
It’s crucial to the movie’s slow-gathering moral perspective that by the end, Collin is quiet no longer. “Blindspotting,” true to the “Rashomon”-esque conceit of its title, grants both men the courtesy of their own perspectives, but it also knows that equivocation has its limits. And it is Collin, in the end, who pushes the movie forward into a surreal, angry moment of confrontation, abandoning plausibility and realism for a moment of pure, unbridled hip-hop catharsis.
It’s a startling coup de cinéma, a bold formal rupture, and I can’t help but wish it worked better. There is something about the calculation of “Blindspotting,” a movie all too aware of its own impressive ambition, that somehow resists the poetic abandon, the electrifying spontaneity that López Estrada and his collaborators are trying to pull off. You can see and admire what it’s doing, even as your better judgment, and the movie’s own egalitarian sensibility, compels you to believe there might be another way to do it.
Rating: R, for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: AMC Century City 15, Century City, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles