With Spike Lee receiving critical acclaim for his recently released BlacKkKlansman, it brought into perspective the influence of his work over a new generation of filmmakers. Directors such as Dees Rees, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler all site Lee as a source of inspiration, and as erratic as the She Gotta Have It director’s career has been, it is impossible not to take joy from watching the seeds he planted back in 1986 beginning to bloom three decades later.
Debutant director Carlos López Estrada has mentioned watching a lot of Spike Lee films in preparation for Blindspotting and it becomes harder to separate the two the longer his first effort goes on. It also sees Daveed Diggs in his first lead role after enjoying the mega-success of Hamilton on Broadway. Diggs wrote the script with co-star Rafael Casal, both of who have been friends for half their lives and that natural chemistry is one of the few highlights in the film.
Blindspotting is one of a few 2018 releases dealing with weighty social issues, with The Hate U Give and Monsters and Men also tackling the subject of police brutality. It’s one of many topics Estrada’s film throws into the mix as we see the town of Oakland, California primarily through the eyes of ex-con Collin (Diggs). A year on from being released from prison he is attempting to navigate his way through the last three days of his probation and back into a normal life without stress.
Collin works in a removal firm with his white best friend Miles (Casal). Rushing home to meet his 11pm probation curfew, he pulls up at a red light and witnesses a young black man shot down in cold blood by a white police officer. Collin feels he is in no position to speak up about the incident given his probation, but try as he might to bury the memory of that night, it only grows stronger in his mind and haunts his every move.
It isn’t just the murder that’s on Collin's mind. The shooting gets him thinking about his position as a black male in Oakland and America, living in a neighbourhood that, despite rapidly falling victim to gentrification, still only keeps him a hair's breadth away from losing his life over nothing. While he’s trying his best to stay out of trouble, it seems Miles is doing all he can to find it. But even so, Miles is white and far more likely to get away with his recklessness. If only he could mature and face up to the privileges his skin affords him then Collin might just make it through.
While much of these themes sound complex and dramatically intense, the script is played with a light comedic tone for much of the film. Estrada’s direction also creates a heightened sense of reality almost to the point of being purposely theatrical. While that seems fitting given Diggs’ recent background, it doesn’t offer up much in the way of subtlety. At times it feels like a mash-up of Gridlock’d and Do The Right Thing – one part buddy comedy and one part neighbourhood drama.
There is some fun to be had watching Collin and Miles both set up to play against stereotype. Collin is happy to indulge in an overpriced $10 organic juice being sold to the hipsters coming into the area, while Miles wears fronts on his teeth and violently rages at the changes being made to his local area. The two bounce off each other well but that is far from enough to compensate against how heavily the themes are hammered home. There is little to no restraint shown by Estrada, and it culminates in a cringeworthy on-the-nose confrontation in the film's climax that feels like an excerpt from a modernised Hamilton.
This is the sort of film you desperately want to work because it is clearly a passion project eager to get across its point of view about the themes it is trying to discuss. But the in-your-face filmmaking, awkward tonal shifts and lack of self-awareness make it impossible to ignore all of its many problems. The Spike Lee influences resonate a little too clearly in Blindspotting, and it appears as if Estrada, Diggs and Casal have overlooked the very best of his work and picked up too many of his worst habits instead.