In the climactic scene of “Blindspotting,” a young man named Collin, portrayed by Daveed Diggs, delivers an excoriating rap about navigating social space while being black, over-policed and chronically misread. As his impromptu spoken-word performance gains force, it becomes a scorching aria of long-repressed rage and trauma.
In terms of staging, the soliloquy is being directed at a pivotal supporting character in the film, while Collin’s best friend, Miles, who is white, observes from the back of the room. Much of “Blindspotting” chronicles how Collin and Miles, who have grown up together in Oakland, are forced by various circumstances to renegotiate the terms of their friendship. Rafael Casal, who plays Miles, noted recently that although the scene nominally centers on another character, “so much of that poetic verse that Collin does . . . is [intended] for Miles behind him. And Miles’s job entirely at that moment is just to listen.”
On the surface, there’s nothing remarkable about a depiction of interracial friendship on screen — especially in a movie set in Oakland, where Diggs and Casal really did grow up alongside one another in a racially mixed community. It is now a settled fact of American life. At a time when pluralism and integration are the norm, monocultural friend groups on screen simply no longer ring true.
But all too often, diverse families and friendships are presented simplistically — at worst as mere tokenism or at best as an aspirational ideal, with little or no depiction of the candor, self-examination and often painful confrontation it takes for people of different races to understand and support one another. From Hannibal Buress popping up in an otherwise all-white clique of friends in “Tag” to wholesome images of interracial families in commercials advertising everything from breakfast cereal to laundry detergent, it’s as if, in a rush toward the mythical bliss of “post-racial” harmony, we’ve skipped over truth and jumped straight to reconciliation.
“Blindspotting,” which Diggs and Casal wrote, presents viewers with the rare sight of friends of different races grappling with the disparities of lives and experiences that, for the most part, have much more in common than not. Indeed, Collin and Miles’s deepest differences aren’t racial but temperamental, with Collin consistently demonstrating a soft-spoken thoughtfulness that is completely at odds with Miles’s motormouthed, hair-trigger machismo.
But, as “Blindspotting” brilliantly demonstrates, even something as personal as temperament is conditioned by racial expectations. As the film opens, Collin is trying to complete the last few days of probation for a felony offense by sticking to his curfew and keeping his head down; his channels for navigating the city are far narrower than Miles’s, not only in terms of drawing the attention of the police but in terms of the mostly white strangers who have moved into their neighborhood, bringing a host of assumptions and biases with them. Collin’s anxieties finally come to a head, not just in the climactic rap scene but in a heated argument with Miles regarding his own obliviousness to Collin’s new circumstances.
“Miles has been [Collin’s] best friend his whole life,” Casal noted during a publicity stop in Washington, observing that Collin “has been fine with the way Miles has acted his whole life. Suddenly his best friend, who’s been there for him every step of his life, is also a magnet for everything that he’s afraid of.”
“And in their neighborhood before, their dynamic was fine,” added Diggs, “because everybody who was there had an understanding of who they both were. Now they can’t control what other people’s narratives of them are. You’ve grown up preparing yourself for a particular kind of coding, and all of a sudden that’s not what’s happening.”
The fact that “Blindspotting” makes these dilemmas explicit, that it dramatizes Collin and Miles’s efforts to listen to one another and be transformed by those encounters, is just one animating strain of a film that also happens to be hysterically funny and ingeniously structured to resemble a street-level musical. Unlike mid-20th-century “problem pictures” wherein black-white relationships themselves were the subject (think “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ”), the “issue” is no longer that people of different ethnic identities can get along or even fall in love; the issue is what they need to know about each other’s realities to make genuine trust and intimacy possible.
“Blindspotting” brings the audience into that dialogue at a more complex juncture by design. “The thing that’s sort of frustrating, as someone who fancies themselves ‘woke,’ is to be having conversations that start at zero every time,” Diggs said. “Because it feels like you’re never going to move forward. And one of the main reasons for having this film exist in the Bay Area is because that area already starts maybe at two, so we can at least skip a little bit.”
If Diggs and Casal are able to skip ahead in terms of nuance, it also feels as if they’re stopping and going back, in order to model messy, difficult but crucial encounters that are otherwise invisible in Hollywood films eager to prove their diverse bona fides. In her 1978 poem “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend,” Pat Parker wrote, “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m black. Second, you must never forget that I’m black.” It’s just that form of double perception that Diggs and Casal address in “Blindspotting,” which takes its title from the challenge of removing the blind spot that allows us to see only one version of an image — or, put another way, the challenge of forgetting while never forgetting. Images of reconciliation can be blissful, to be sure. But without the work of telling and hearing hard truths, the picture will always be incomplete.