A panoramic view of Oakland’s shipyards closes Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting in what unfortunately becomes an engineered scene intended for generic uplift. It’s a curious moment in an uneven film that suggests one of two things: (1) that the filmmakers yearned for a tidy, pat ending that imparts a measure of closure w/r/t its profoundly erratic racial polemic or (2) that the filmmakers were actually far more conscious of their milieu’s social and racial history and, based on the way the final shot is composed, posits that a confrontation between past and present is necessary before we can even begin to rationalize our discomfort and obligation in talking about Race.
Blindspotting (mostly) eschews considering the historical context within which Oakland’s economical and racial disharmony stems from. Its opening sequence, rather, probes the product of that history and its subsequent division: told in split screens, we observe the rapid decline of an urban community, the introduction of a prominent Latino population, and a millennial, tech-driven generation gentrifying and seizing control of once dominant Black enclaves. The film’s East Bay shipyards, a totem of post-WWII racial conflict, aren’t considered until that final scene. Rather, Estrada and writers (and the film’s stars) Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs narrow our aperture by observing the consequence of action. It’s how we’re first introduced to Collin (Diggs): currently on parole (Casal and Diggs employ a countdown device to let us know how many days are left on his parole) and working alongside his childhood friend Miles (Casal) at a moving company.
The whys and whences behind Collin’s incarceration, his uneasy relationship with his girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar), and his concerns with continuing his friendship with Miles become plot devices, mechanisms for narrative fodder that while dramatically effective, frequently register as too blatant and obvious. There’s no confusing Blindspotting’s didactic intentions, which goes so far as to introduce Collin donning an “Oakland, CA” sweatshirt, placing him in a compromising position that demands him to shift from passive observer to an active member of his community despite his racial identity and criminal past. This sort of micro character study as an examination of macro concerns certainly could have been subtler in getting its message across.
Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (Highly Recommended) is less explicitly about Oakland and more about living in Oakland. We observe Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) make his way to his telemarketer job at RegalView. His ramshackle car is perpetually on the cusp of combusting as he careens through the underdeveloped metropolis, before coming to a stop at one of the numerous high-rises that feels less like a workplace and more like an urban plantation. Dark smoke perpetually emits from under the hood of Cash’s car in what ends up operating as an ominous signal of what’s to come.
Riley’s film is sharper, keener and more cunning in its insights. He isolates the anxieties of metropolitan living largely within the confines of a commercial skyscraper and parallels it wonderfully with a separate narrative involving Cash’s artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). The inherit commercial conflict of the two worlds plays well as a relationship drama, while Riley amplifies the comic absurdity of Cash’s career climbing – Cash harnesses his “white voice” to earn the praises of his supervisors. When the employees of RegalView attempt to unionize, it’s Cash who’s tokenized and provided with a heralded promotion, finally provided access to “heaven”, or rather, up the pecking order in RegalView’s food chain.
Key to both Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You is the idea of black figures transforming themselves to better accommodate a social contract that they had no privilege in making. The rigid social strictures that confine Cash and Collins may not be visibly apparent but their repercussions are tangibly felt, whether it be the social anxieties that plague Collin for being a black man with a criminal record or Cash’s perpetual need to change his very being in order ascend the ranks of RegalView. But whereas Sorry to Bother You presents its arguments in comprehensive and frequently unexpected ways, Blindspotting relies on shrill dogmatic cant to express its numerous concerns, which at times can be muddled and unfocused.
The idea that both films involve a pivotal rap sequence is notable. In Blindspotting, Collin confronts a white police officer in the cop’s basement. Blue Lives Matters memorabilia ornate the quarters in one of the film’s all too obvious gestures. Here, Collin confronts the cop with a monolgue and a gun, more or less outlining the film’s thematic element in dramatically passionate fashion. It’s a white-knuckle, sweaty-palmed scene loaded with social and racial consequence, but ultimately, like so much of Blindspotting, it evokes a theatricality that’s just too disengaged from reality. Whatever connection between moral values and cinematic intentions seems too false, too engineered, and as such, disingenuous. See, it comes down to Blindspotting paying lip service to the plights of an individual, a community, a nation. These broadly histrionic moments provide you with a guttural response, but there’s an absence of intellectual probing. And when your argument aligns with my political philosophy, it’s hard not to find a lot of this sermonizing redundant.
The rap sequence in Sorry to Bother You, comparatively, plays for comic effect but echoes with tremendous urgency. Here, Cash is invited to a debaucherous party hosted by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), RegalView’s CEO. Cash is singled out among a sea of white people as one of the few black attendees. Pressured by Lift, he’s told to rap for an audience. Cash clumsily attempts to get something going before indulging his white audience by repetitiously uttering the n-word, much to the delight of his audience. The white audience’s rapturous response speaks to larger societal demands and expectations placed on black men. And as the film proceeds in gonzo fashion, such expectations can never be fully met, as Cash is then expected to make a transformation that is Cronenbergian in design.
Which in turn brings us back to where we began: Oakland. The fact that both films take place there may just be a fiduciary incentive/convenience but regardless, both are clearly attuned to their milieu in a way that informs their narrative. If the ending of Blindspotting imparts a more optimistic reading of its characters futures as they roam the metropolis, then Sorry to Bother You is understandably less enthused about the city. While making amends with those he wronged, Cash is forever changed, altered right down to the marrow. Urban living does that to you, leaving you with only one distinct alternative: kill your masters.