Brow Beat

Blindspotting’s Words Are Weapons

But not everyone can use them the same way.

Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting,
Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting,

Blindspotting, starring Hamilton star Daveed Diggs and former Def Poetry poet Rafael Casal, takes its name from a character’s term for the limits of perception, the dualism that we can’t see, for example, in Rubin’s vase; we’re either going to see the vase or the faces. The movie’s approach to language similarly broaches this question of perspective as it relates to gentrification and appropriation: How is my Oakland not your Oakland? How is my nigga not your nigga?

The film, which takes place over the last few days of Collin’s (Diggs) probation as he and his hot-tempered friend Miles (Casal) confront matters of race, police brutality, and gentrification in their hometown, heavily showcases dialogue in verse. Throughout the movie, Collin and Miles rap back and forth as they go through their daily lives, hauling boxes for the moving company they work for. Their dynamic is easy, amiable, as the two friends are able to relate over their shared experience in a changing Oakland, California. But there is a limit to their shared experience. After all, Miles is white and Collin is black—and, even more, a black convicted felon—who understands that his life is threatened in a way that Miles’ never will be.

Talk may be cheap, but in Blindspotting we see how Miles turns talk into profit. He cons Tisha Campbell-Martin’s skeptical hair salon owner, Mama Liz, into buying a box of old flat irons by putting on a show marked by charm and end rhymes, then sells a boat on a street corner in a rhythmic, rapid-fire exchange packed with slang. Both times, Collin simply looks on with a mix of amusement and skepticism and then ultimately surprise when Miles finally brandishes the cash he’s garnered. Miles’ response? “Everybody listen more when you make it sound pretty.” Here a white man uses appropriated black language for profit, the inverse of the black protagonists in recent films Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman using white voices to their own advantage. Miles is able to move in and relate to black circles in part because he claims a language that feels native to him in the same way it’s native to the black people around him.

Collin doesn’t commodify his language in the same way, but he’s aware of the way the language flexes between him and his best friend. After Collin witnesses a white policeman shoot an unarmed black man, he’s haunted by the incident and spends the majority of the film trying to keep out of any trouble that might violate his parole. In one scene, Miles has his young biracial son declare, “I’m a tough guy!” before inviting him to play-fight Collin. It’s an appropriately lighthearted term, something a pugnacious Looney Tunes character might say, but Collin uses the same term later when Miles’ son asks him what he’d done to go to jail: He was being a “tough guy.” Miles’ “tough guy” is a playful character who throws a couple jabs without consequences, but Collin’s “tough guy” is a black “thug” who, even under the most innocuous circumstances, might be thrown into prison or killed.

It’s just another example of the way white privilege changes the conversation between Collin and Miles, who in one scene is called out as a “culture vulture” by a black man at a hipster party. He mistakes Miles for a recent transplant and tells him he doesn’t need to act black to live in Oakland, setting Miles off and leading to a violent confrontation. Miles is a born-and-raised Oaklander, but the gentrification of his neighborhood is a personal threat to him because it troubles his ability to blend in among the other true (black) Oaklanders. The gentrifiers call attention to his race and the fact that, despite his upbringing, he still exercises a level of privilege that Collin can’t share. Though Miles is the crazy gun-toter, the one more likely to start and end an altercation, Collin is always the one more liable to go to jail—and already has.

When Collin gets Miles away from the party, bloodied and still raging from the fight, the duo finally have their big blow-out. Miles wants to know why Collin didn’t have his back, and Collin tries to explain why there’s more at stake for him in such situations. Eventually it all breaks down to the language: “Yeah, my nigga,” Collin says, to which Miles returns, “Yeah, bro.” But Collin returns, “No, say it,” and again, amid Miles’ protests, insists, “Say it. Say ‘Yeah, my nigga.’ ” Miles is baffled, then frustrated, saying that he can’t say the word, but Collin presses him, asking him how he can be OK with being called nigga but not with calling Collin nigga in return?

It’s an easy kind of thievery, an act of gentrification in language: Miles can be a nigga in as much as he’s a participant in the culture, a part of the (black) native Oakland community around him, but it’s a borrowed title that doesn’t fit him, and Collin recognizes his complicity in identifying his friend as though they truly stand on the same ground, simply by way of their shared history and affection for each other. Miles may accept the term, use it as a passkey into the culture without having to be tethered to its racist, historical context. Collin, on the other hand, has no choice. He will be a nigga, a convict, the man the police are always looking for, even if he doesn’t match the description. Near the end of the exchange, Collin realizes, “You are the nigga that they are out here looking for.” Miles is the true rendering of the scary black man the police (and society at large) are looking for—only he’s not black, so he’s not in jail.

The climactic scene in Blindspotting, when Collin once again comes face to face with the officer he saw shoot a black man in the back, features the longest rap sequence in the film. This isn’t just Collin and Miles trading lines in the street; it’s Collin facing a man who represents one of the threats to his existence as a black man in America. This is far from playful poetry; he’s using his language to define himself in a way he otherwise can’t.

“You teach your kid poetry because nobody cares what they have to say unless they make it sound pretty,” Diggs says in an interview with the Atlantic. “So we wanted to get to a point where Collin has to be heard. The stakes are life and death. What he needs is to be heard by the object of all of his trauma; this person is the nightmare that’s been haunting him.”

The choice of medium is fitting: Rap is a black form that involves the commodification of rhythms, ways of speaking, culture, and aesthetic, but the form is also frequently perceived as sellable only when it conforms to certain tropes of blackness. One can speak without being heard, can have his language turned against him when it’s appropriated. But Collin isn’t a rapper in this film; he’s just a black man trying to stay alive and stay out of jail, and this language is his means of making sense of his trauma. Just briefly, too, in Blindspotting’s climactic confrontation, Collin’s power is in the language more than in the gun he wields. Even if it’s temporary, Collin takes ownership of his language and yields it as both offense and defense: a prosecution of the cop’s actions in a systemically racist America and a defense of his own life and identity.