When I moved to Oakland in 1981, I was 18 years old and had never heard the word ‘gentrification’ —indeed, the word was younger than I was. At the time, Oakland’s African-American population constituted 47% of the city’s residents and was at its historic high-water mark. Three and a half decades later, it’s ebbed away to less than 30%: was I, unknowingly and without malice aforethought, the thin end of the gentrification wedge?
Watching Blindspotting (opening at several local movie theaters on July 20) should cause other non-native white residents of The Town to ponder their own level of responsibility for its demographic changes. I suspect that was likely the intent of Berkeley High grads Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, who’ve crafted this deeply intelligent, well-written drama with comedic overtones that is going to make waves come next year’s awards season.
And speaking of awards, I have a confession to make: prior to seeing Blindspotting, I really had no idea who Casal and Diggs were. Oh, sure, I’d heard the names, but not being a fan of stage musicals I had no idea one of them (which one?) had won a Tony Award — probably because I haven’t paid attention to the Tony’s since the 1970s. I didn’t even know which stage musical one was associated with. Boy, am I getting old and out of touch.
Having spent ten years of their lives willing their film into existence, Casal and Diggs cast themselves as Miles and Collin, two working-class West Oakland residents working for a moving company while Collin’s probationary period ticks down. Found guilty on felony charges for a crime of violence, Collin is determined to stay on the right side of the law, while Miles isn’t shy about carrying a gun and being a bit of a bad boy.
In other words, Collin should really stay away from Miles, at least until he’s off probation — but being best friends who work together, that’s easier said than done. Sure enough, Miles’ reckless behavior soon poses a threat to Collin’s freedom.
Blindspotting examines the challenges that black Oaklanders experience every day: openly racist policing, the rapid change of neighborhoods as affluent whites displace long-time African-American residents, and the subtler forms of racism that come with the territory: even in a city as diverse as Oakland, white cultural norms largely define how we live (hello, BBQ Becky and Jogger Joe).
And that’s not all: despite never mentioning it by name, the film implicitly critiques the toxic masculinity that drives so much of the city’s violence. While the film’s female characters – Collin’s old flame Val (Janina Gavankar), his mother Nancy (Margo Hall), and Miles’ spouse Ashley (Jasmine Jones) – keep things together, the men struggle to keep their testosterone under control. Miles’ penchant for putting the boot in is also a reminder that, despite his working-class roots, his white privilege provides him protection that Collin will never know.
Shot entirely on location in Oakland – you’ll see many of your favorite local landmarks — Blindspotting is also a love song to our beloved, benighted, and much (and frequently unfairly) maligned city. It’s the next chapter in the Oakland film naissance kicked off by Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale and set to continue with Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Don’t miss it.