How Were We Supposed to Know that Hipsters Were So Flammable – Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal Deliver in Blindspotting
Hey geeks! Last night your girl went to an advanced screening of Blindspotting with the Bruin Film Society. Blindspotting is an indie film written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. In Blindspotting, Collin (Daveed Diggs) must make it through his final three days of probation for a chance at a new beginning. He and his troublemaking childhood best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), work as movers, and when Collin witnesses a police shooting, the two men’s friendship is tested as they grapple with identity and their changed realities in the rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood they grew up in.
It will be released July 20 but as a fangirl I lack patience when it comes to seeing my faves. So I braved L.A. traffic from the IE and boy was it worth it. The movie was phenomenal. And after the screening, writer/stars Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, and brilliant supporting actresses Janina Gavankar and Jasmine Cephas Jones did a lengthy Q & A. After the Q & A they sat on the stage (!) and stayed to talk to fans for over an hour. They were precious. I’ll talk about that experience on the podcast next week but for now, this is my Blindspotting review.
Blindspotting is an ambitious movie. It is about home and loyalty. It portrays people of color raising children, trying to keep their relationships strong, and coping with PTSD, all in environment of gentrification, police violence, and mass incarceration. But at heart it is a buddy comedy centered on fast talking hot head Miles (Rafael Casal) and easy going everyman Collin (Daveed Diggs). It is a nuanced, challenging, yet side splitting buddy comedy. And oh, there is spoken word poetry. Quite a bit of it. All of that sounds pretty hard to pull off. But the crazy thing is that they DO pull it off. The screening audience (myself included) was alternately laughing, gasping, and sitting on the edges of our seats. There were also tears. It is that affecting. The movie's power to affect the viewer, if you are a person of color especially, comes partly from the fact that the characters who inhabit this movie would have been stereotyped or made caricatures by other movies. We don’t often get to see these types of characters in this way – people of color, convicted felons, working class people, women of color, etc. In Blindspotting they deal with trauma but they also dance in the kitchen. They grapple with violence but also clown on each other. Another big part of the impact of this movie comes from the method of layered, gradual storytelling and commitment to authenticity.
First, the authenticity. Every single aspect of the movie feels organic. Every character feels like it was pulled from inside of someone rather than composed on a writing room board. The dialogue is fresh and the jokes feel like jokes your friends would tell, but only if they were as fast on their feet and as funny as Miles and Collin. In the Q & A portion after the screening, Daveed Diggs says he and Rafael drew on their own rhythm and chemistry as lifelong friends. That makes Miles and Collin a joy to watch. The spoken word in the movie is the patter of two childhood friends who have spent years running the streets entertaining each other by just talking shit and making up verses. I was a little worried about potential awkward inexplicable poetry moments. But I literally didn’t even notice the transitions between poetry and non poetry. That is just how Miles and Collin talk. And as the spoken word elements are heightened little by little throughout the movie, you are never taken outside of the story. You just get absorbed early and it is a fantastic ride.
Secondly, part of the organic approach is that the movie never tells you what to think, it just makes you feel for the characters. It shows people living their lives, and then it goes about taking their inner emotional lives seriously. For example, the main friendship of the movie involves two men who love each another (it's platonic, but it's love), but whose friendship is tested by the world and their own trauma. Precious few movies or TV shows portray male friendships in all of their importance and nuance. So that already makes Blindspotting special. According to most pieces of art/entertainment, men aren’t supposed to care about each other that much. They aren’t supposed to need each other that much. In most movies centering male friendships, the audience is encouraged to laugh with them but never allowed to cry with them. That is a classic feature of toxic masculinity. But Blindspotting just blows past all of that and shows brilliantly how these two men need their friendship. That makes the movie great because it rings true.
It would be absurd to pretend that Miles and Collin wouldn’t depend on their friendship for survival. They grew up together. They have helped each other survive absent fathers, life on the streets, and the criminal justice system. So the fact that Collin and Miles have chosen to be family to one another makes complete sense. Some of the best scenes are when Collin is in Miles’s home, playing with his baby Ziggy (Ziggy Baitinger), and bantering affectionately with his partner Ashley (Jamine Cephas-Jones). But Collin and Miles experience life differently because the world treats them differently based on their race. Collin is trying to survive in a world where the color of his skin makes him a target, and his record means one misstep puts him back in jail. Miles wants to champion Collin, but in true family fashion, that often means inhibiting his growth. Also, Miles is a white man who grew up in among people of color, so he feels like he has to continually prove he is extra down. Add that to his deep fear of losing his home (Oakland) to gentrification, and he is always the first one to pop off. But when he starts shit, he is attracting the police, which puts Collin at risk as a Black man with a record. Miles doesn’t think about that at all, which is part of the problem. He’s just being wild trying to defend his home and his best friend. That’s what he thinks, anyway. But he is missing a big part of the picture by refusing to be accountable for the added risk he is bringing into Collin’s life and his own son’s life. This problem unfolds and escalates throughout the movie masterfully. By the time Miles and Collin have it out, covered in blood in a parking lot, you just can’t tear your eyes away. The dialogue, the performances, everything is as compelling as anything you will see on screen.
Also, this approach to telling personal stories is the most impactful way to talk about topics like police murder and mass incarceration. That is because politics are personal. It is the power structure that de-personalizes politics. It is the power structure that tells you politics is something separate you think about only when you turn on CNN or go to the voting booth. This is at best a privileged point of view, and at worse, a calculated strategy to dissuade marginalized people from participating in the political process. In truth, politics is simply what our institutions do to the human spirit. Watching Collin deal with PTSD, Ashley trying to keep her son safe, Val trying to improve her life, and Miles trying desperately to hold all the pieces together with his bare hands – these stories tell us everything we need to know. When we see institutional injustices collide with their lives – Ziggy throwing his hands up and saying ‘don’t’ shoot’ while giggling, Collin walking down the street at night during a particularly heart stopping scene where you are begging the cop car to Please. Just. Keep. Driving. How can you not see that politics are about how the human spirit is at the mercy of our institutions?
Also brilliant is the layered, gradual way in which they introduce you to these characters. You go on a journey that forces you to see their humanity, the good, bad, and ugly, at all times. This plays out to sharp effect with the Collin character as well as with Val and Collin's arc.
Let’s start with Collin. Of course Daveed Diggs is absurdly lovable and he brings that quality to the screen. But it is more than that. The movie is masterful at creating this experience of getting to know Collin at every level so that you never simplify or patronize him. Now. You know from the opening scene that he did time for a felony. At the first part of the movie, you are left to guess as to Collin’s crime. But you are having so much fun with the jokes, the banter, and the streets of Oakland, that you don’t dwell on the question. Also, you feel right away that it can’t be anything too nefarious. When you meet him, the first thing you see is his sense of humor. Then in quick succession, you see his vulnerability around Val and his silliness with Ziggy. You get the idea that he has disappointed Val and made some poor choices, but you know that he is a good person who wants to better himself. While Miles and Collin are moving things in and out of people’s houses, they idly make up rhymes together. These are absolutely brilliant pieces of character development as well. Hearing the rhymes Collin makes with Miles to deal with the boredom tells you that he is a sensitive, clever, thoughtful guy. Then, a little way into the movie, Miles (in true extra af Miles fashion) dismisses Collin’s crime saying ‘how were we supposed to know hipsters were so flammable!?” But as we see through the entire movie, humor is a great way to cope but can also be used to mask truth. So from the jump, you sense that Miles is a hilarious but unreliable narrator. So you know fire is involved but that's about it.
By the time you see the crime Collin has committed, you are already ALL IN on Collin. You love him and want things to turn out for him. The crime isn’t something that changes that. But it does reveal another layer of Collin that surprises you. You also see him momentarily through Val’s eyes and in that instant you understand why she broke up with him. The moment also adds another layer to your understanding of Miles. Like, oooohhhhh he thinks a woman should be completely ok with that. Duly noted, Miles.
By the end of the movie you see Collin for who he is in his entirety and the journey you took in doing so never let you simplify him. It never let you love him for something he wasn’t. A more pedestrian movie would give you the experience of “Some incarcerated men of color are good people.” Blindspotting give you the experience of “all incarcerated men of color are human beings, both good and bad, like Collin and like everyone else”. Y’all. That’s a big difference and it reflects masterful storytelling, and it must be said, storytelling where people of color get to tell their own stories.
And since I have mentioned Val, I have to say that I appreciated how layered the storytelling was for Val and Collin’s relationship. You first meet Val when she and Collin have an icy relationship. He’s almost off parole and he wants to show her that he can improve himself. She has her defenses up. The first introduction you get to any description of Val is Miles complaining about her. He calls her a disloyal bitch in his loud, extra way. He complains about Val not visiting Collin in jail (and presumably dumping him) the way he complains about $10 green drinks, his favorite burger place becoming vegan, and hipsters parking like shit. These are all crimes in Miles’s world.
As a woman, I did not join him in judging her. Calling a woman disloyal is just another way to describe a woman maxing out on your bullshit. But while Miles judges Val, (mostly because he judges the Collin/Val relationship through the lens of family, not romantic partnerships) the movie does not. I was happy about that, because judging a woman for leaving a relationship can become sexist hack bullshit really quickly. But thankfully that doesn't happen. Val is nuanced like everyone else.
As the movie unfolds it becomes clear that Val wants better for Collin because she still loves him. And the chemistry between Val and Collin is off the chain. The scene where she is braiding his hair and he looks up at her? Oh Lord. *fans self * And afterward when he goes in for a hug and she shuts her eyes while he is holding her like “goddamnit motherfucker why do I love this so much”. I mean. Their chemistry is freakin fire and she is so relatable. I’m a school nerd and so I’m also going to relate hard to a girl doing her flashcards trying to better herself. Another way the movie shows that it does not judge Val is that the other women do not judge Val. Collin’s mom loves Val. And Ashley is very clear that any distance between her and Val is because of a very perfuntory consession to Miles's focus on loyalty. An Ashley line I loved was “ I didn’t cross the picket line, shit I’m just following her on social media.” These women have made different choices but they do not judge one another. And you get the feeling that they care about each other a lot.
With time you see that neither Val nor Miles are perfect in what they expect from Collin. And you understand that it was never about Collin making a choice between Val or Miles expectations. It was always about Miles choosing himself. And oh god do you want him to choose himself. CHOOSE YOURSELF, COLLIN.
Look, I’m a passionate person. Latina + fangirl is a potent combo. But its also a damn good movie that touches on so many themes that matter to me.
Last thing I want to say is that this movie depicted PTSD in an incredibly honest way. As someone who suffers from PTSD I appreciate that. And on the podcast we are going to do an entire ep about media that gets the depiction of mental health right and I’ll definitely be talking about Blindspotting. I'll also give my first-hand account of meeting the amazing cast, and I’ll read a list of names Miles calls white hipster gentrifying his neighborhood. It’s good shit.
So yeah, do I need to spell it out? Go see Blindspotting when it comes out. Release date: July 20, 2018 (USA)