How ‘Blindspotting’ Makes the Personal Political

About twenty minutes into Blindspotting — one of the best releases in this year’s crowded summer slate — protagonists Collin (Daveed Diggs, of Hamilton fame) and Miles (Rafael Casal) are urged to stand a few feet apart by local artist Patrick (Wayne Knight) and look into each other’s eyes. They quickly crack under the pressure, sliding back into their familiar, self-described Calvin and Hobbes-esque banter, but for a few tender moments, we linger on their faces, the light illuminating their eyes as they acknowledge one another’s existence — as they see.

Seeing is at the crux of Blindspotting. Directed by frequent Diggs/Casal collaborator Carlos López Estrada in his feature debut, we follow Collin — brought to life with vibrancy and vulnerability by Diggs, earning him an Independent Spirit Awards nomination — through his final three days of probation as he freestyles his way through the complexities and contradictions of California’s Bay Area. Crucially, Collin witnesses a white cop (Ethan Embry) gun down a black man and spends the rest of the film haunted by this encounter even as he navigates his tested relationship with the volatile Miles, attempts to mend fences with ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar), and reconciles the Oakland he knows and loves with this brand new world of green juice and vegan burgers. The film’s title refers to Rubin’s vase, the famous psychological phenomenon in which the viewer recognizes an ambiguous shape as either a vase or a profile of two faces, likening the image to the practice of looking beyond one’s own ingrained worldview. In Patrick’s words: “Look deep. Commit. Understand.”

Blindspotting is emblematic of this year’s crop of bold new stories that aren’t afraid to rip their politics from their chests and smear them across the lens for all to see. Diggs and Casal, who, in addition to starring, wrote the script over a period of nine years, never shy away from portraying the nuances of what they call the “heightened reality” of the Bay Area. They’re in good company as the film has joined something of an “Oakland Trifecta” of 2018 films centered on the Bay Area, alongside Sorry to Bother You and Black Panther, that share commentaries on rapid gentrification, police brutality, and the symptoms of institutionalized racism. Art is and always has been political, but since the Black Lives Matter movement galvanized communities across the nation five years ago, film and television has further echoed this awakening, including these issues not as an afterthought, but as an essential part of their narratives.

Entertainment has begun to coalesce with activism even beyond the Black Lives Matter movement, providing insightful social commentary on a number of long-overlooked issues while also connecting with audiences. The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and even brief moments of various late night shows hosted by any number of Jimmy’s all straddle the line between investigative journalism and comedy, shining a light on underrepresented issues while raking in laughs and views. Podcasts in the vein of the wildly popular Pod Save America seek not only to inform, but to entertain, cracking puns and quips as part of their self-described “no bullshit” political coverage and working with progressive organizations to raise awareness and funds for a number of causes, from youth voter turnout to gun control. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected representative of New York’s 14th Congressional District, has taken to regular Friday night broadcasts on Instagram live, sharing insights about being a young congresswoman of color, offering inspiration and single-pot cooking advice for her fellow millennials. This part activist, part entertainer phenomenon is due in part to the rapid decentralization of media itself, with new technologies ever broadening the reach of the public sphere. People have more power than ever to broadcast their own stories far and wide, and that’s been reflected in the stories we see on screen, whether it’s the 20-foot one at the theaters or the 5-inch one we carry in our pockets.

And yet Blindspotting distinguishes itself as sharing its own truth — it’s not simply entertainment, it’s an incredibly personal piece of art. Diggs and Casal portray their struggles so effectively because it’s their story. Having grown up in the area (Diggs hails from Oakland, Casal from Berkeley) and watching it change over the years, they’re able to offer the organic, unfiltered perspective that only someone grown from the same soil can. Their film isn’t a sociology textbook; it never takes on the air of a cautionary tale, using its characters as mere avatars for issues. Blindspotting is, first and foremost, about Collin and the fabric of his life in the Bay Area.

That includes the injustices of being black in America, but it’s laced together with being part of a family and the semi-legal sale of boats and the repeated use of the phrase “fuck Alfred Hitchcock.” Topical issues like “bilingual education for the youth of Oakland” refer to getting Miles’ young son into a good preschool; “men transitioning out of incarceration towards finding a better life” isn’t a mission statement for some nonprofit and is instead the reality of our protagonist. We view these topics through the lens of Collin and his life, so they become not just words on a news notification, but intensely personal realities, even for folks who have never set foot in Oakland. At one point, during the aforementioned boat sale, Miles’ pitch slips into a frenetic freestyle that’s a joy to watch. He tells Collin, “They like the bounce of that shit. Everybody listens more when you make it sound pretty.” Blindspotting makes it sound pretty.

The best artists and activists have the same goal in mind: portraying their truth, even — and especially — if it’s not one our eyes are trained to see. As citizen activism rises from the overlooked corners of the country to splash onto our screens, so does citizen art. New perspectives are everywhere, if we just tune in. As Patrick says as he pushes Miles and Collin together, “To stare is to see.”

Megan Sergison: @megserg East Coast writer, tweeter, and pasta aficionado. On a journey to befriend Barry Jenkins.