"Blindspotting" is a film of many layers, recalling a hundred tracks on a single, highly produced piece of audio. Genres, cultural commentary, themes and characters combine like a complex stack of sound waves, mixing with each other to create something stunning.
An audio production simile might be especially apt here. Writers and co-stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have collaborated before on multiple experimental, socially thoughtful hip hop albums, and they -- with director Carlos López Estrada -- playfully and powerfully weave the duo's musical sensibilities into the narrative of the film.
Characters even break into rap in pivotal moments in the story, making "Blindspotting" something of a hip hop musical -- which Diggs knows a thing or two about from that "other" project he's associated with (for which he won a Tony Award in 2016).
On top of the thrilling, beautiful sounds made from human vocal chords delivering inventive, provocative lyrics, the rest of the film's soundscape -- the sound design, music selections and score -- play a large part in the film's overall impact. It's no wonder part of the film's financing came from a special fellowship focusing primarily on its use of sound.
When we're first introduced to Collin (Diggs), he's about to begin a tenuous, stressful year of probation after serving time for a crime he wants to forget ever happened. 362 days later, he's in the final few days until freedom, when he will no longer have to deal with nightly curfews and geographic boundaries, and he is anxious about any interruption of plans that could jeopardize his impending freedom.
As a black man on the streets of Oakland, Collin's full-throated commitment to clean living is unfortunately not the only factor in his probation completing without incident. For one thing, his best friend, a white man named Miles, has a penchant for getting into trouble.
For another thing, when onlookers see Miles getting into trouble and Collin nearby, they might end up seeing reality in reverse. Flipping mental assumptions is tough work, a theme that plays out with beautiful sophistication in the film.
I love the way characters act the way they would act, getting things both wrong and right -- like people -- rather than giving the feeling that their actions are the puppets of drama-seeking screenwriters. The script doesn't rely on cheap ratcheting up of tension because it already has plenty to ratchet with the dramatic, powerful and suspenseful scenarios the writers carefully formed (over nearly a decade of working on the script together).
The film finds ways to pay things off that you don't expect it to. Its racially diverse cast at first plays as "color-blind," with white, black and brown characters at all levels of socio-economic status and who take on atypical cultural identities for the colors of their skin.
But such blindness has limitations, as the identities that are imposed upon us by default in a cruel, indifferent and racist culture can prove to be heavy burdens no matter who we are. Given such a cultural context, we not only have to do the difficult work of defining for ourselves who we are (a task that can be hard enough), we have to do it in the blinding spotlight -- like that of a police car late at night -- of an external world that is quick to judgment and prone to simplistic stereotype.
"Blindspotting" challenges that toxic cultural context with artistic flair and profound depth. Its characters -- like the film itself -- deserve to be really seen.
Director: Carlos López Estrada
Starring: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones
Running time: 1 hour, 38 min
Festival Program: U.S. Dramatic Competition