“Blindspotting”: Addressing Social Issues with Rapping Dialogue

It’s a moment that every young black man fears.  Walking down the street at night, trying not to draw attention to himself; and then, as if fate is trying to be cruel, a police car rounds the corner on the opposite side of the street and noticeably slows as it spots him walking. He holds his breath, all too aware of how something like this could end. He closes his eyes momentarily, listening to the hum of the engine and the rolling of the tires, hoping that the car will just keep going. But it doesn’t. Instead it makes a U-turn and pulls up behind him as he is walking. As a bright beam from the car’s spotlight floods over him, he stops. Fear is apparent on his face and the world seems to have stopped as a high pitched hum fills his ears and drowns out the sound of the engine idling menacingly behind him. He is struggling to maintain control, to not react, to remain calm. He is holding his breath; waiting. Then, just as suddenly as the light appeared, it goes off and the car rolls slowly on by, leaving him standing there on the street, shaking, but finally able to breathe again.

It’s a powerful and haunting moment, and there was an audible sigh of relief from the audience in the theater as they watched the cop car pull away from the protagonist, Collin on the screen, during the third showing of the new film “Blindspotting” at the Sundance film festival on Saturday, Jan. 20 at the Grand Theater in Salt Lake City. It was listed as one of the most anticipated films for this year’s festival line-up, and judging by the audience’s reactions during the film and in the Q&A session with the film’s writers and cast following Saturday’s screening, it is living up to the hype.

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(Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal star in the film they co-wrote for the  2018 Sundance Film Festival. Photo from Sundance Institute).

Having premiered in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 18 in Park City, the film has already been acquisitioned by Lionsgate, who bought the distribution rights for the film earlier this week. It has received many favorable reviews and was even called “the most exciting cinematic take on contemporary race relations” in the last 30 years by film reviewer Peter Debruge in Variety.

Promoted by Sundance as a “buddy-comedy” that drops you “into a vastly layered story” about gentrification, the film is full of both funny and dark moments that are woven together in a manner that makes the audience think a little deeper about their social context. 

Set in Oakland, the hometown of its screenwriters and lead actors, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, the film is meant to act as a “time-capsule” that preserves a glimpse of the city “the way we know and love it,” Casal explained during a Q&A session following the film’s showing on Saturday.

In recent years, Oakland has seen many changes, due in large part to the gentrification of its neighborhoods. With Oakland absorbing some population spill-over from Silicon Valley, the film grapples with the issues that face the city’s long-time residents as their city changes around them. And as Diggs explained it, those issues are all dealt with by keeping their context in mind.

One such example is how they address the casual and common use of the N-word. “Until we bring it up, it is used fairly casually,” Diggs said, explaining that in real life, it is used in a very casual manner. “I think in this sort of climactic scene where Miles and Collin [have this] argument, the historic weight of that word is one part of a revelation that Collin is trying to get to throughout the film of why he feels so unsafe; why he feels so hunted.”

Diggs further explained that his character Collin is struggling to understand his own context throughout the whole film and that the context of the N-word and its use is reflective of that. “[His] context is changing and he all of the sudden feels out of place in it; he feels unsafe because he doesn’t understand where he fits in with things,” Diggs said. 

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(Blindspotting official movie poster. Released by Daveed Diggs).

In addition to addressing heavy social issues, the film breaches new territory through its use of metered and lyrical raps in a musical-esque style. In what is best described as a new-age Shakespearian style, the film’s characters speak in rhythmic rhyme that rises and falls with their emotions and communicates their connection to the city in a beautiful and at times jarring manner.

“The bay area is a hotbed for innovated language and slang and stylized speech to being with and so we used that as a sort of logical link,” Diggs, said. Speaking specifically of his character Collin, he said, “You notice throughout the film that the first time we hear him rap, it’s very literal and as it goes on, it gets more obscure and you’re not entirely sure how much of it is in his head and how much is real.”

He went onto explain that using heightened language was one of their major focuses, one of the “core pieces of the DNA” of the movie from its earliest conceptions over ten years ago. And while Diggs and Casal spent years developing the script, the film itself was made in just 22 to 25 days, “depending on who you ask” said Utkarsh Ambudkar, who also has a role in the film. But considering Diggs’ background as a rapper and the fact that the city of Oakland is a character of its own in the film, it’s no surprise that meter and rap play are a part of what makes this film intriguing.

“Blindspotting” was the first feature film for both Casal and Diggs, but if their enthusiasm says anything for their futures, it probably won’t be their last. Whether its writing raps or scripts,  Diggs said “the skill set or the way I work on everything is the same. I search for the thing that is really exciting… and I like it to be different.”

-AUBREYRE-

(This is an extended version of an article I originally wrote for the Deseret News where I write for the Features, Arts and Entertainment sections. The original article can be found here.)

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