Back in May, the internet made a viral meme out of Jennifer Schulte, better known online as “BBQ Becky.” Schulte, a white woman, called the Oakland, California, police to report a group of black parkgoers at Lake Merritt for using a charcoal grill in a noncharcoal zone. According to the parkgoers, Schulte also called the area “my park” and one of the cookout attendees the N-word. The incident was part of a spate of viral stories in which the police were summoned to oust people of color from spaces where they ostensibly didn’t belong: Starbucks, an Airbnb, a college tour, a Yale dorm. At a time of heightened awareness about racialized police brutality, these episodes served as evidence that many white people still don’t understand how disruptive, at best, encounters with law enforcement can be for minority groups. But in Oakland, where Lake Merritt abuts several rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, the “BBQ Becky” phenomenon was also a reminder of the entitlement and obliviousness—not to mention the unneighborliness—of recent settlers as well as the violence they knowingly and unknowingly inflict against poorer and darker-skinned longtime residents.
Oakland is the fastest-gentrifying city in the Bay Area, which tops the lists of metro areas where housing is least affordable. The new drama Blindspotting, written by and starring East Bay natives Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, gives voice to the displaced and the ones who are barely hanging on. It’s a righteously angry movie: “The whole damn city has a ‘for rent’ sign on it,” tuts a character. But Diggs and Casal, along with first-time feature director Carlos López Estrada, display a greater interest in the complexity of the problems that gentrification exacerbates among the already vulnerable as well as in playing around with the genre of the socially conscious drama. Like Chi-Raq, Get Out, Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, and TV’s Atlanta, this quasi-musical eschews gritty naturalism for flights of fancy that speak to and about injustice in novel, metaphorical terms. The verses that Diggs and Casal spit in climactic moments don’t just call attention to systemic oppression but the cultures at risk of waning or disappearing.
Blindspotting opens with a split-screen montage. On the left is the Oakland of the Black Panthers, Oscar Grant, and 101 resistance-themed murals; on the right is the Whole Foods just two blocks from Lake Merritt. Three days before Diggs’ Collin is to complete his yearlong parole, he witnesses from the driver’s seat of his employer’s moving truck a white cop shooting a fleeing black man several times in the back. Reporting the crime feels impossible: “Hello, police? I’d like to report a murder you did.” While the case becomes a cause célèbre, Collin focuses on getting his life back together. But how do you plan for a future in a city you can’t afford, where the benefits of “progress” mostly accrue to those who least need them?
Collin and his best friend Miles (Casal) wonder at the Oakland that their hometown has become: a new Portland, filled with green juices, vegan burgers, and tall bikes. (The pals work together as movers, staying afloat financially, at least for the time being, by working for their potential supplanters.) Collin is cautious and amiable, in part because he has to be. He’s a tall, muscled black man in braids who’ll do anything to avoid being sent back to jail. As a tatted, begrilled white guy, Miles has the luxury of making himself be seen, though he’s just a tight T-shirt away from being mistaken for a transplant—a word he can’t say without twisting his face in disgust. While Collin scouts for opportunities where he can adapt to the new Oakland, Miles simmers in his feelings of rage and besiegement until they can’t be contained. (In a showier role, Casal, who resembles a knocked-around Timothy Olyphant, steals the picture from the Tony-winning Diggs, best known as an original cast member of Hamilton.)
Blindspotting’s central mysteries—why Collin went to jail, and why Miles loathes his bud’s ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar)—eventually unfold exactly as they should, unearthing the mutual resentments between the two friends that they’d kept buried for the sake of their friendship. When the two men finally contend with the hornet’s nest between them that they’d ignored for years, a masterful scene ensues in which the writers address the spikiness of race and masculinity as well as how inadequate our language can be in discussing those issues. But the pacing feels loose and sags as the drama trots toward its very last confrontation. That’s a disservice to the killer-cop storyline, which feels forgotten for much of the film’s running time and finally resolves with an eye toward ideological neatness, rather than the honest complications that make the rest of the film so forceful.
Still, the dual portrait that Blindspotting offers is heady and dense and mighty compelling. Miles can only see the Oakland of before and the Oakland to come, but for Collin, the city’s past and future aren’t different enough. The survival of their friendship depends on whether they can adjust their perspectives to see what the other sees.