History Has Its Eyes on You: Blindspotting


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In his breakthrough Broadway performance, taking on the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking 2015 musical, Hamilton, Daveed Diggs played two very different characters.  One was a born freedom fighter, a loyal friend prepared to give his life for a country that is not his, later betrayed when the same help is not forthcoming in his own war of revolution.  The other was an arrogant political intriguer, a slave owner who plots to take down his strongest political opponent by any means necessary.

For those who may have (ahem) listened to the Hamilton soundtrack more times than they can count, it's difficult at first to distinguish the voice of Diggs' character in Blindspotting, Collin, from those of Lafayette and Jefferson.  This sense of connection is only heightened as the style of the film sets in, with breathtaking set-up scenes of tightly-choreographed dialogue culminating in a freestyle session between Collin and Miles (Rafael Casal), whose camaraderie recalls so many of Hamilton's early moments.  Even Diggs' Hamilton co-star, Jasmine Cephas Jones - who played Maria Reynolds and Peggy ('And Peggy!') Schuyler - appears here as Ashley, Miles' partner. 

But it is more than style and casting that recalls the themes of Hamilton, or timbre of voice that links Collin with its characters.  In some of the very first lines of the musical, Diggs - in the guise of Thomas Jefferson - sings of how the title character 'struggled and kept his guard up. / Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of' [1].  In different ways, these lines serve just as well to describe the two main characters of Blindspotting, and their battles to protect their own shifting identities and rail against their very real sense of powerlessness.

For Collin, the contexts for these struggles are matters of life and death: police brutality, gun violence, racial profiling, and the threat of a lifelong loss of opportunity.  In the short term, the film depicts the final days of Collin's probation following on from a felony conviction.  This probation requires him to arrive back at his halfway house every night by 11pm, and not to leave the greater Oakland area.  The latter restricts his economic freedom, preventing his removals job from giving him an assignment in Walnut Creek, a mere twenty miles away.  But even outwith these explicit boundaries, the probation binds Collin in more insidious ways: it makes him afraid to act out of line, even in the face of obvious injustice and violence.

Miles' battle, meanwhile, is with what he considers the unstoppable juggernaut of gentrification.  For him, its telltale signs are everywhere, each one the trigger for a caustic rant: tall bikes, a new arrival with a bevy of bags for life, the changing menu policies at the Kwik Way, people who show off their car alarms, artisan beer - you name it, Miles is against it.  Far from being a mere chip on his shoulder, this encroaching gentrification represents to Miles the imminent erasure of the neighbourhood he has known and loved since his childhood - the one in which he grew up alongside Collin, in an area whose character is rapidly disappearing as the overflow from long-overpriced San Francisco moves inland, bringing with it $10 kale smoothies and all the other things Miles despises most. 

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What ties Miles' crusade to the more pernicious threats facing Collin is that both are, at heart, issues of identity.  It is no mistake that so many characters throughout the film are keen to identify so proudly and explicitly with their sense of place.  Collin owns an endless supply of Oakland T-shirts, while other characters sport Oakland hats and another even has the Oakland city flag pinned to his kitchen wall.  But these questions of self-identity are often coupled with how characters are identified by others - in how, as Miles points out, the news shows the perpetrator of a police shooting in a clean dress uniform, while his victim is depicted in an orange convict jumpsuit.

Yet, in another scene, Oakland native Miles discovers that he shares his tattoo of the California border outline (with a star over the Bay Area) with one of the very hipsters he despises most, who has lived in the area for a year yet refers to it as home.  But despite being wrapped up in genuine anger over gentrification, his seething resentment at this appropriation of his hometown is, at its heart, at only one remove from Trumpian anti-immigration rhetoric.  And, in the violent culmination of Miles' anger, it becomes clear that, however much he wishes to identify with their struggles, he will, as a white man, never be subject to any of the structural inequalities that plague Collin or Oakland's other people of colour.  At the end of the day, he will always remain free from both the tangible and more subtle restrictions that prevent Collin at every step from sharing his sense of self-indulgence.

However, such physical outbursts are the exception here, rather than the rule.  For both Collin and Miles - as portrayed by Diggs and Casal, who together wrote the film's screenplay - language is the ever-present release valve for the pressures on their lives; it is how they form bonds, make money, and revisit the sites of previous traumas.  And it is language that allows them, within the film's framework, to take up the voice of the communities they stand for and resist the damage they see being done to them.  It is how they become spokespeople for their time and place, with the opportunity, albeit slim, of fighting against the tide of history and what it has in store for the neighbourhoods and cultures they believe in.  It is therefore appropriate that, when Collin is given his singular chance to retaliate against the powers that be, his assault is verbal rather than physical.

By the end of Blindspotting, the characters in power have no less power, and the characters without power appear to be no less powerless.  And yet, something has changed.  If Collin's interventions have perhaps not had any large-scale ramifications, they have at least made some difference: if the blindspots are still there, then they are no longer entirely invisible.  In the words of the Marquis de Lafayette (by way of Lin-Manuel Miranda), what Collin has achieved is to 'snatch a stalemate from the jaws of defeat' [2].  And perhaps, for Collin, that would be enough.

Marc David Jacobs 
Freelance arts worker
October 2018

 


 [1] Original Broadway Cast Recording, Hamilton (2015), 'Alexander Hamilton'

[2] ibid, 'Stay Alive'


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