Blindspotting (Summit Entertainment, R)

In psychology, blindspotting refers to the phenomenon that, when presented with a picture that could be interpreted two ways, a person can only see it one way at a time. It’s not a question of the person’s eyesight being deficient, but rather that the brain picks a lane, so to speak, when presented with ambiguous visual input, and tends to stick to it. This phenomenon persists even after the alternative interpretation is pointed out, so that while a given viewer may be able to see both interpretations in succession, they can’t see them both at the same time. The term is well chosen since most people are familiar with the term “blind spot” in relation to driving—it’s the spot where your mirrors will simply not see another car—and realize that the solution is not to stare harder at the mirrors, but to turn your head and take in some new information before changing lanes.

It’s not hard to extend the metaphor and apply this principle in non-lab situations. For instance, we have a tendency to interpret an ambiguous situation in a particular way, and to stick to that interpretation even if we can intellectually acknowledge that other interpretations might be possible. We also have a tendency to apply a label to a person based on only some of their characteristics and behavior, which is convenient for our brains but shortchanges the variety and complexity that exists in every human being. And when I say “we” I mean just about everyone, because these are not traits of deliberately evil people but of normal human cognition. In a society where power is distributed quite unequally, however, you have a problem because some people’s blind spots tend to get enshrined as the truth, the real version of events, and alternative interpretations ignored.

The obvious example of blindspotting in Carlos Lopez Estrada’s film of the same name involves an incident witnessed by Oakland resident Collin (Tony Award winner Daveed Diggs) as he drives home from work. What he perceives is the police (most notably a white officer played by Ethan Embry) shooting and killing a black man running who was running away from them, thus presumably presenting no immediate threat. Since Collin is currently on probation (we later learn for what) and understands the power relationships of Oakland, he drives on, but remains haunted by what he has seen. Not surprisingly, the official version of events is quite different from Collin’s, justifying the shooting based on the criminal background of the dead man, the fact that he was carrying a weapon, and the assumed authority of the police. Both interpretations contain part of the truth, but most people will pick one or the other, based not on the details of this specific incident but on their general beliefs regarding black men, the police, street crime, and so on.

The story may sound familiar, but Blindspotting is something quite different. Although most of the film is naturalistic, it also draws on the tradition of the musical, most obviously in the way some characters burst into rap at key moments. Tonally, it’s a messy film, mixing a variety of styles (not always successfully) and alternating bold invention with hoary tropes, cheap shots, and unnecessary skit-like diversions that feel like padding, but it’s still well worth seeing because of its fresh and original take on modern life. So many of the films released in the U.S. are just minor spins on films that have already been made, so it’s always worth noting when something original comes along. Blindspotting certainly meets that standard.

Strong performances carry Blindspotting even when the screenplay (by Diggs and co-star Rafael Casal) flags, collectively providing a heartfelt and nuanced portrait of people trying to make it in a world that often seems stacked against them. Besides Collin, key roles include Miles(Casal), a white guy who grew up with Collin and is as ghetto as they come, Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) Miles’ wife, and Val (Janina Gavankar), a dispatcher at the moving company where Collin and Miles work. Although most of the film’s time is spent with the Collin, Miles, and other male characters, Ashley and Val are key to its meaning: because they are not a part of guy world, they can point out the blind spots of those who live within it. | Sarah Boslaugh

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