Sorry To Blindspot You, Oakland

These are strange quarantined times. But despite living alone, your oldest of Ropes has felt quite connected in his isolation, as friends from around the world are confined to their homes too, engendering a sense of international camaraderie. I’m lucky enough to still have a job and so I don’t have mountains more time on my hands, but the change of pace has allowed me to finally watch some reccos (a Liverpudlian recommendation, to you) from my pal Giro. That’s her choice of pseudonym, by the way, an honour I seldom bestow.

Giro’s last three suggestions in the world of books, comics and art all paid dividends, so laziness, rather than doubt was the only plausible reason for the delay. Of the three films she scrawled in my notebook (another privilege, given how it’ll end up in a museum one day), two were very loosely thematically linked (working class life in Oakland, California) and so are gathered together here. The third will be granted its own space to breathe, which as you will see later is apt for the subject matter.

Blindspotting is a dark comedy drama directed by Carlos López Estrada, written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. It took over a decade to get made but finally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 before garnering a whole bunch of other award nominations. No surprise, it’s bloody brilliant.

The story follows convicted felon Collin (Diggs) as he tries to stay out of trouble for the final three days of his twelve month parole – a task made much harder by his reckless gun-enamoured best friend Miles (Casal) and the fact that he has just witnessed a police officer shoot a black man in the back. What could possibly go wrong?

Miles: But you’re a witness, you never leave like a statement and shit?

Collin: Oh yeah, “Hello po-lice? I’d like to report a murder you did. I was out after curfew. Yeah I’m a convicted felon. Alright, back to jail? Yeah tomorrow works for me, what time? Fo’ sure, hmm, yeah ok.”

The film coalesces  around themes of race, class, violence and change, with Estrada and the writers managing to encompass all without being heavy-handed, somehow blending humour and heart-in-your-mouth tension into seemingly every scene. And there truly are some incredibly tense moments, on a par with any I’ve seen on celluloid. Maybe the lockdown has numbed my senses to the point that all drama now feels heightened, but I don’t often find myself howling unheeded advice at the TV screen and pacing the living room floor like a nervous wreck, other than for the footy obviously, and there’s none of that to be found. The producers owe me a new rug, mine’s now threadbare and the telly’s covered in spittle.

Blindspotting is a story of contrasts: of class, as seen in the lifestyle differences between Collin’s circle and the well-heeled middle classes whose party they unwisely attend to keep a low profile (“It’s ok, you don’t need to act ‘ghetto’ here”); and of race – not just the systemic racism of trigger-happy cops towards the black community, but also of the differing experiences of the two best friends despite their commonality. Both Collin (black) and Miles (white) are all too aware that the former will always be more suspect in the eyes of the law – in one scene Miles astutely critiques the media’s portrayal of the hero policeman, shown in uniform with the Stars and Stripes, and the orange-jumpsuited prison file photo of the man he shot (“Oh come on! Use bruh’s work photo! They couldn’t find one picture of bruh in his own shit?!”).

We are offered glimpses of Miles’s own struggles too, the product of which is his balls-out bravado, as he processes being working class white in black Oakland (as seen in his unease with the N-word, or his own P.o.C son learning to avoid getting shot by the cops). “He’s had to fight so much for space and his identity and to get everyone in the area to respect and know him his entire life”, noted Casal. The ground on which that respect is built, however, is visibly shifting around him.

Change is ever present, often humorously viewed through the lens of food. It’s easy to deride gentrification (fun too!) and mock capitalism’s commercial co-opting of ‘wokeness’. Indeed Blindspotting has its fair share of lolz at the way the world is going. Yet it doesn’t so much poke fun as show these trends to be something more textured. Mom Nancy defiantly refuses to cash in on the area going upmarket (“I am not selling my house! I’ll be damned if I’m moving out of this neighbourhood now they got good food and shit!”). Their outrage at new-fangled, new-age fast food or health beverages often gives way to acceptance or even, gasp, enjoyment. The urban backdrop bustles with hipster haircuts on ridiculous bikes, alongside kids doing brazen wheelies on BMXes and blinged out monster truck Uber rides. They are two sides of the same coin, stemming from a shared need to stand out, to be noticed in a fast-altering world of homogenisation. This desire for individualism is nicely counterpointed by the cynical realism of love-interest Val, who suggests that Collin lose his braids, to look less ‘blameable’.

There are differences of character at play too, from Collin’s laid back leave-me-alone to Miles’s, bullish swagger; Nancy’s right-on radical optimism to Val’s resigned pragmatism. Alternative tactics to navigate the same circumstances. Who are we to judge? Even the killer cop, by no means let off the hook by the film makers, as we know he all too inevitably would be in any real life inquiry, is given a nuanced humanity.

There are contrasting styles of story-telling too, as the film veers from nervous drama to broad larger-than life comedy, sometimes overlapping in the crossover. The pay off tale-telling from a third party of What Collin Did is both hilarious and brutally shocking. Collin wants to put it behind him, but it has become the stuff of legend and, worse, Val cannot unsee his misdemeanour.

Realistic violence is often more extreme than anything a high-octane thriller or Hollywood horror flick could offer up. It is this violence which permeates the city that the film shows us. It underlies every scene and every interaction between the characters. Real life best mates Diggs and Casal said that, “One of the big reasons to make the film in the first place was because we had never seen our city represented in the way that we know it to be.”

The fictional friends are clearly no strangers to hostility or even bloodshed but they are horrified by the brutality of the computer game played by a young kid. The state oppression witnessed by Collin haunts him as he tries to keep his head down and rebuild his life. The dangerous police are prowling around every corner. The story of Collin’s crime looms large and ominous until its big reveal almost exactly midway through the movie. The twitchy point-to-prove guilt of Miles is constantly bubbling just under the surface. The whole thing is a powder a keg waiting to go off and my rug is fucked.

Another inescapable theme running throughout the picture is work. The protagonists are almost always at work, or referencing it when not. Miles and Collin spend much of the movie in their green removal men overalls. There are hints that Val scabbed on a strike, which spreads into their social (media) lives. Between removal jobs our heroes are often grifting for an extra buck, flogging whatever they can. Of an evening Collin forever finds life curtailed by his curfew, mirroring the mechanical clocking on and off we see at the office. Back ‘home’ he is on a rota to do chores, derisively intended to prove he can rejoin society – even if that society is one where he may well get murdered by those who enforce its rules.

Despite all of this, Blindspotting is a very poetic piece. Collin’s tendency to reflect the world around him through rhyme builds to a mesmerising, tightly wound crescendo. It’s intensity in ten cities – except it’s one city. Oakland.

Meanwhile, across town we find another dark comedy, Sorry To Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley. It’s a more surreal affair than our previous film, with shades of Wes Anderson or early Cohen Brothers, but it’s no less poignant.

Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius ‘Cash’ Green, the perennially skint boyfriend of an artist named Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson off of that there Marvel, but here with much better earrings). They struggle to pay rent just to sleep in a makeshift bedroom in a garage until Cash gets a job as a telemarketer, where he is guided to use his ‘white voice’ to make more sales. He’s a natural, making real money on commission and becoming the darling of the ridiculous call-centre middle managers. Cash’s new found status with the bosses, however, means he soon finds himself at odds with Detroit and his friends, Squeeze and Sal, as they attempt to unionise the workplace and fight back against poor working conditions.

As his relationship with his pals becomes increasingly fractured, Cash feels conflicted. He is finally good at something, has money in his pocket and yet everyone thinks he should quit. His success story brings him to the attention of grotesque WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (played by Armie Hammer), very much in the vein of a Musk or a Bezos, and a nefarious plan to exploit labour in whole new ways to make the company obscenely rich. This strikes a nerve at a time when Amazon workers are being sacked for calling out malpractice during a pandemic and real life call centre workers are denied socially distanced, safe workplaces.

Class and race play out here too. That a black man can go far on the telephone with a white voice already speaks volumes, if you’ll pardon the pun. Though Danny Glover’s Langston reveals the real secret of the ‘white voice’ (comically dubbed by David Cross and Patton Oswalt) is not about how white people actually sound, but rather about how they really want to be. There are barely concealed racist undertones too in the fetishisation of ‘black’ culture from the white partying elites, with Cash’s N-word non-rap getting right down to brass-tacks.

It’s larger than life stuff but seeded in reality. The film can be read as an allegory for our own impotent rage at the insane systems of the world. It’s absurdist, but then nothing is more absurd than real life. In fact, when faced with the difficult task of pitching a mischievous film that puts the proverbial boot into capitalism to his potential investors, Boots Riley had to use his own white voice. “At first, I pitched them a story about Sidney Poitier being a serial killer,” he revealed.  “Then I said, ‘I’ve got one more that’s more realistic.’” Looking at the world right now, he was not wrong.

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