You monsters got Matt McMahon feeling like a monster in his own town.
Collin Hoskins has a gun. Neither he nor the beat cop who’s trolling the dim-lit streets of a midnight Oakland, shining his high beams at him, want Collin to have a gun. But there’s no way the cop would understand or care why he’s carrying one if he gets out to search him. This all-too-familiar preamble in contemporary new stories is the moment Blindspotting has been setting the table for across its earnestly contemplative hour and a half running time.
Collin, a residential mover and amateur freestyler in his hometown of Oakland, California, is on his last few days of parole for a felony conviction whose details get slowly doled out over the course of Blindspotting. The film is the first written feature by the extremely multi-hyphenate, frontrunner in your office EGOT pool, actor and musician Daveed Diggs, who also stars in the lead role.
Blindspotting argues that a gun transforms based on who’s holding it. In this particular scene, the gun is a life sentence in Collin’s possession. Moments before this pivotal scene, the gun was an extension of machismo. In a fit of identity-crisis and rage, Collin’s white friend Miles—the gun’s owner—fires it into the air while fighting a guy who slights the authenticity of Miles’s stereotypically “hood” behavior. That same gun, wrestled away from Miles and now tucked into Collin’s jacket pocket, has been and will be a number of other things:
- A transaction
- A prop joke
- A megaphone
- A weapon
- An example of privilege
- A token of police brutality
- A home-wrecker
- An accessory
Everything in the movie builds up to this scene, this confrontation between a black convict and a nameless, faceless patrol cop. And while the movie’s climax doesn’t come for another half hour or so, this is the true centerpiece of the film, indicative of its staging, its power, its emotional payoff. As Collin nervously maintains his harmlessness in the spotlight while safeguarding his friend’s weapon, that friend sits safely at home, girlfriend tending to his wounds. Meanwhile, the cop car continues to approach Collin, as an alternating two-shot creeps closer to both the spotlight and Collin’s pocket, the gun’s handle poking out.
As director Carlos Lopez Estrada cuts between the two friends, their positions completely contrasted, the movie exemplifies Miles’ privilege while condemning his naivete and framing Collin’s danger through his race.
Though making his feature debut, Estrada doesn’t shy away from holding his lens on an image until the audience is physically recoiling from the screen. Blindspotting succinctly establishes all of its visual and aural languages early on, the long-take chief among them. Previously used to accentuate the frustration of a particularly lengthy stop at a red light, the long-take becomes an unsettling motif as the film progresses. Interrupting the usual pacing up to this point, the technique builds tension accordingly released later in the film’s climactic moments.
As Collin, completely alone on the sidewalk, notices the cop car, the scene sheds any elements outside Collin, the gun, and the car. The camera holds firmly on them, without cutting away. Tension continues to rise as the car doubles back on Collin like a predator stalking its prey, sirens blaring, signalling its coming attack. Holding steady on Collin’s helpless figure, Estrada offers no respite from the shot, forcing his viewer to wrestle with the implications of how the gun can be more of a threat in Collin’s pocket than when being unloaded in open air by his white friend.
Unlike the grotesque treatment used for a couple of dream sequences in which Collin’s psyche reconciles the burden of responsibility due to his identity and race with his own personal safety, this standoff is harrowing, if not outright horror. It’s much scarier played as wretchedly realistic as it is as the starkness eschews any other interpretation. The set up is a familiar one, seen in the news far too often to avoid recognizing, even foreshadowed through local news stories in the background of previous scenes. Collin and the cop both know each and every way this encounter will end if the cop searches Collin.
All the pieces align to expect Collin to be murdered in the street, and for the continuation of injustice against black victims of police violence in his wake. Using that shared knowledge, Blindspotting wrings every last bit of despair out of the scene.
When the cop finally drives off, and Collin and the audience collectively exhale, the film seems to bear the weight of a countless number of similarly heartbreaking, often times deadly confrontations, which it carries to its conclusion. Collin is repeatedly reminded of the trauma he’s endured–phalanxes of black male bodies appearing to him like apparitions of PTSD as he runs the same streets the next morning–and eventually takes matters into his own hands to defend the lives they were stripped of.
Through the careful conceit of its many moving parts, the scene conveys the immediate and lasting horrors of being followed by the cops. Taken in conjunction with the rest of the film, it lays out the myriad prejudices and double standards working against black people in America, treating some of the more mundane–like the unrecognizably gentrified local burger joint–with a genuine commiserate wink. And even if you might never find yourself in Collin’s shoes, the film stages the standoff with such emotional resolution it imparts the full anxiety and danger of the worst of his circumstances, regardless of a viewer’s identity.
Just like a gun transforming based on its wielder, the scene may serve a different purpose for different viewers. One on hand, for someone who’s been subject to similar prejudices as Collin, it’s vindication, it’s representation and a fair assessment so rarely captured in a blockbuster film. (Unfortunately, it could just as likely be traumatic for someone who is familiar enough with the experience to never willingly want to go through it again–although the film’s handling of this material is much more tactful and purposeful than that of its contemporary, BlackkkKlansman, and its unearned, tacked on archival coda. Both of which nevertheless remind me of an essay on the videographing and public display of black death by Ezekiel Kweku worth including here.)
On another hand, it’s a truthful portrayal of that same racial disparity for an audience who may never otherwise have to consider the reality of such treatment. In either case it may be difficult to stomach, because why should anyone have to face the threat embedded in Collin’s experience? But that’s Blindspotting’s argument: some people do have to, and a collective acknowledgment and awareness of that is pivotal to its end.
This is far from the only topic the film confronts in its dense, sometimes explosive narrative on a city’s rapid gentrification and the effects that gentrification has on its residents, but it may very well be its most affecting. In addition to the lovingly complex portrayal of a city’s past, present, and future, this is Blindspotting’s shining achievement: validating the experience of a figure so often disregarded, vilified, or dehumanized by our prevailing media, while creating an opportunity for empathy in its entire audience by translating that experience into those who would otherwise never experience it without feeling disingenuous, unearned, or perhaps worst, voyeuristic.