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‘Blindspotting’ Film Review: Ambitious Oakland Tale Suffers From Too Many Ideas

Carlos López Estrada’s feature directorial debut gets overwhelmed by abrupt shifts in tone and an excess of hot-button issues

Having too few ideas has been the downfall of many a film, but sometimes too many can be just as much of a problem. “Blindspotting,” which premiered on opening night of this year’s 2018 Sundance Film Festival, puts far more on its plate than it knows how to handle.

It’s a story about gentrification, police violence, the rules of being a white person growing up surrounded by black culture, the criminal justice system, institutionalized racism, guns in the home and the semiotics of hair, jolting with jarring artlessness between witty comedy and intense drama.

Co-stars and co-writers Daveed Diggs (“Wonder”) and Rafael Casal have a lot to say, much of it funny and/or provocative, but neither they nor first-time feature director Carlos López Estrada can figure out a way to shape all this material into a cohesive film.

We open with Collin (Diggs) being released from prison on probation; he has to live in a halfway house for a year, remaining employed and obeying a curfew, after which time he will be fully released. Jump ahead 11 months and 27 days to the last 72 hours of his probation, where he’s trying to get out of a car where his lifelong friend Miles (Casal) is buying a gun. It’s a hilarious scene, one that’s as much about their local burger joint going vegan-umami as it is about firearms.

As Collin is hurrying home to make his 11:00pm curfew, he gets stuck at a red light, where he witnesses an unarmed man get shot four times by an Oakland cop (Ethan Embry). Knowing that, as a parolee, he’s in no position to make trouble with the police, he tries to forget the incident, but it begins to weigh on him more and more. Meanwhile, the gentrification of Oakland continues apace, with $10 green juice at the corner bodega and tech billionaires getting the same neck tattoo Miles has had for his entire life.

“Blindspotting” doesn’t know how to move back and forth between breezy but often tired gags about Whole Foods and goat cheese and the intensity of Collin’s nightmares about cemeteries filled with hoodie-clad black men. These topics could certainly play off each other, particularly in scenes where we see white developers discarding the photo albums and other memorabilia of the black families that used to live there, but the tone shifts are frequently far too jarring.

By the film’s final act, it’s too busy over-explaining its own themes (the exchange in which the title is explained ranks among the cinema’s clunkier explaining-the-title scenes) before setting up a grand climax in which Collin spits out a defiant, half-crazed rap about his fear and anger at the police and other white power structures. Diggs nails the performance — he’s a “Hamilton” alum, after all — but the context and circumstance in which his outburst take place feel artificial and not properly set up.

Both Diggs and Casal are electric performers, but as writers they’ve given themselves all the best lines. Even with such talented actors as Tisha Campbell-Martin and Janina Gavankar on hand, the only other cast member who gets a meaty monologue is the very funny Utkarsh Ambudkar. (And his speech is all about Collin.)

One consistent virtue of the film is the cinematography by Robby Baumgartner (“The Guest”) who captures the many sides of Oakland with grace and beauty without veering into chamber-of-commerce territory.

The creators of “Blindspotting” fall into the trap of many a first-time filmmaker by taking every notecard off the bulletin board and putting them all into one movie. One hopes they’ll get plenty more opportunities to parcel those notions out a little more stingily.