BLINDSPOTTING: Being A Felon, A Human, An Optical Illusion

This contains spoilers for Blindspotting.

There’s an optical illusion at the center of Blindspotting, the famous image of a vase that, when viewed with the right perspective, becomes two faces. This optical illusion becomes the driving thematic element of the film, and I think it also becomes the meta thematic element of the film – how you look at Blindspotting, what your perspective is, will dictate what you see in Blindspotting.

For some it will be the gentrification that permeates every block in modern Oakland, transforming the city in which Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) grew up, transforming it around them storefront by storefront. For some it will be the constant threat of police violence that hangs over Collin, a black man just trying to walk down his own street, haunted by seeing another black man gunned down while fleeing the cops. For others it will be the ways Miles desperately grabs for identity as he drowns in a sea of anger and resentment, a white man growing up in a black culture in which he can never truly participate, and yet apart from the white gentrifiers invading his community.

For me it was the struggle of Collin to find his way after getting out of prison for a violent felony. All of these other elements coalesce around this story, informing and supporting it – the transformation of Oakland mirroring Collin’s inner change, the continued police threat representing his precarious position on parole, Miles’ identity crisis reflecting back at Collin the outlandish and violent aspects of modern black culture that define Collin because of his skin color.

The movie takes place over the last three days of Collin’s parole, and he lives in a halfway house. He’s clean, walking the straight and narrow, but getting home for the 11 o’clock curfew remains challenging for him. One night, coming in late, he is confronted by the house manager, James (Kevin Carroll), who drops heavy wisdom on him:

You are a convicted felon, Mr. Hoskins. You are now that until proven otherwise. Prove otherwise at all times.

That line is in the trailers, but it didn’t hit me until I saw it in the film, in context. It filled my eyes with tears. This struggle is all too familiar to me, the idea of having been one person and working hard to be another person… all while having to continually, actively prove that you are not the old person. You get no days off from this, and the smallest infraction – coming in late, not cleaning the halfway house toilets – reframes you not as the changed man but as the felon.

Collin sees himself as the vase, but everybody who looks at him sees the negative space, sees him as the two faces. They see that because of his skin color or because of his history, but they all see him in a way that is fundamentally different from how he sees himself. This is most explicitly reflected in his relationship with Val, his ex-girlfriend (Janina Gavankar), who whenever she looks at him sees the violence that landed him in jail. She’s changing her life, living whole and healthy, but she can’t get past that night.

We spend a lot of the movie not sure what Collin did to land him in prison, and the few hints we get are vague and maybe even jokey. Miles definitely laughs about it, but we see that the event haunts Collin, and when we finally see it play out in a flashback we truly get why.

There are two bravura sequences in Blindspotting, and this is one of them. Collin and Val, at their dayjob, run into a customer who was there that night, who saw what goes down. The scene begins comically, with the customer telling his friend the story of this EPIC fight he witnessed, about what a BADASS Collin was. And director Carlos López Estrada, in his feature debut, start this flashback with a light and fun attitude that we can get behind. It’s clear that this is a gentrification showdown, and Estrada has us fully on the side of the locals as some hipster dipshit orders an ironically huge flaming drink at the bar where Collin is the bouncer. As the scene goes on – funny, bouncy, pregnant with the expectation of some kind of comedic comeuppance for this doofus – it slowly darkens. The hipster and Collin get physical, and the fight quickly gets ugly. This isn’t fun. Collin gets on the guy and pounds him, while Miles stands to the side and kicks him again and again in the side of the head. The two men are so focused on destroying the hipster’s face – now bloody, mouth likely full of jagged broken teeth – that they don’t even notice the flaming drink spilled on him. The hipster lays ablaze on the sidewalk, Collin’s arm also on fire as he raises it in the air to bring his fist again and again into the hipster’s face.

Estrada wipes the smile off your face with the sequence, and we are left with a truly savage brutalization. This is a brave choice (one, it should be noted, that was clearly made by Diggs and Casal, who wrote the movie together); it would have been easy to have Collin imprisoned on a bullshit charge, to have his blackness or his economic situation get him unfairly put behind bars. But this beating? He deserved prison. The unfairness is that Miles didn’t join him.

If the movie had led with the beating could we have seen Collin the same way? We first meet him dazed, getting paroled, but he’s already changed. We get to see Collin as he sees himself, as the vase, before being confronted with this other version of the man. The shock of understanding who Collin has been, what he has done, is vital in informing the film’s second bravura sequence.

Throughout Blindspotting I felt a little disappointed. Collin and Miles are spoken word artists, freestyle rappers who sometimes communicate in verse. Rafael Casal is famous for this in real life, and Daveed Diggs is the lead of the group Clippng and the originator of Lafayette/Jefferson in the original Broadway production of Hamilton. The film felt like it had the energy and talent to turn into a musical, and the two friends’ spoken word sparring offered the perfect vehicle for it. I was desperate for it.

But I was unwise in my desire. That energy is being cultivated throughout the film, building and growing, and it is finally unleashed in the movie’s second bravura sequence, where Collin – gun in hand – confronts the cop he saw shoot the unarmed man at the beginning of the film. He confronts him in a powerful, emotional, exciting and tragically beautiful spoken word rap. Everything was building to this; to have wasted the energy on a few other spoken word numbers along the way would have robbed this sequence of its explosiveness. It’s a shattering sequence.

More shattering: the film allows this cop to be a human being. He’s falling apart in the aftermath of the shooting, and his wife is leaving him. It would have been easy to make him a conscience-free piece of shit, but the script by Diggs and Casal is too deep, too wise for that. It understands that if the guy who beats a hipster within an inch of his life is also a real person, so is the cop who shot the unarmed man. It’s not letting the cop off the hook – the movie doesn’t let Collin off the hook – but it’s also not dehumanizing him.

This is so valuable. The film understands that just as the picture is a vase AND two faces, just as Collin is a felon AND a human being, so is the cop a murderer AND a broken person. One doesn’t preclude the other. Blindspotting understands that the problems facing Collin and Oakland are human problems, and that makes them both solvable and tragic. They’re not acts of God – they’re the results of broken, fucked up people running head first into each other. But we see that Collin has changed, and we KNOW that Collin has changed, so we know there’s hope. And the movie ends on a moment of quiet hope, nothing flashy or big, but simply acknowledging that life goes on and there’s another day and maybe we can use that day to get a little bit better than we were the day before.

In fact the movie says that change is happening whether we like it or not, so why not take advantage of it. The neighborhood is no longer what it was, but Collins’ Afrocentric mom isn’t that upset – there’s good food now, she says. And the expensive green juice they sell at the bodega? It turns out Miles likes it when he finally tries it. Nothing stays the same, and all we can do is decide how we deal with the way things are changing, and  maybe allow ourselves to change with them.