Blindspotting: A Thought-Provoking Overlooked Film

Blindspotting (2018)
Directed by Carlos Lopéz Estrada
Lionsgate, 95 minutes, R (language, violence, sexual situations)

Blindspotting is a contemporary riff on Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing. Take Lee’s character Mookie, make him a parolee, tamp down the wisecracks, and you’ve got Collin (Daveed Diggs); transform John Turturro’s dumb-as-a-brick Pino into the short-fused black wannabe Miles (Rafael Casal), and you’re on the right track. There’s not a thing wrong with any of this; Lee’s heralded film–though it still dazzles–is in need of an update. Blindspotting would certainly rank high upon my list of should-be-seen overlooked films of 2018.

Director Carlos Lopez Estrada’s film shifts from Harlem to Oakland, the city of which Diggs–who made a splash in the play Hamilton–is a native. Diggs and Casal wrote the screenplay with the goal of correcting stereotypes of the Bay Area. We detect many of the same elements of Lee’s Harlem, especially views of neighborhoods in transition. Oakland was a Black Panther epicenter during the 1960s and, like Harlem, endured a reputation for being dangerous–read white people don’t want to go there–long after the Panthers faded. These days, you need to have inherited property or be wealthy to live in places such as San Francisco, Berkeley, Cupertino, or Palo Alto, which means that Oakland is becoming gentrified by whites of more modest means. Racism, though, remains the constant.

Blindspotting unfolds over the 72 hours before Collin can walk away from his halfway house curfew as a free man. We learn in flashback sequences that his conviction for a brutal beating of a white hipster outside the bar in which he was a bouncer was only partly as it played out in court, but being black in Oakland around white cops has–shall we say– disadvantages. Collin is truly trying to change his life, which isn’t easy around his best friend Miles (Casal). Unlike Pino in Do the Right Thing, Miles has the capacity to be both dumb and dangerous. He adopts black lingo, carries himself with a rapper’s swagger, and has a bad habit of brandishing a gun, the latter a no-no for Collin as it could send him back to prison. Miles isn’t black, but he presents as such; he even has a black girlfriend with whom he has a mixed race son, but he’s definitely a guy Collin should lose. Still, how do you give the bum’s rush to a guy who has been your best friend since childhood and with whom you work everyday? (Collin and Miles work for the same moving company.) And how do you convince your ex-girlfriend, Valerie, that you’re not a thug when you keep such company?

This lead us to the film’s central theme. “Blindspotting” is the mnemonic device that Valerie (Janina Gavankar)–who is studying psychology–uses to remember Rubin’s vase. What do we perceive when we see the image, a lamp base or two opposing faces? Indeed, how do we form our perceptions, and can we trust them? When Collin is rushing to make curfew and observes a running black man gunned down by a white cop, what has he seen? What was the cop’s perception? It is a chilling moment and Estrada uses it to heighten the sense of fear felt by young black men as they navigate their way through what most white folks would call “normal” life. It is also a Rubin’s vase test on how we the viewers see race.

Like Do the Right Thing, the film builds to a flashpoint that tests all the ways of seeing that you might imagine. Thirty years on, Estrada’s budget was just 1/6 of what Lee had available to him. This means Blindspotting sometimes has a handmade look, but in this case the wallet in no way limits the film’s wallop. It is billed as comedy drama, and that may be one of the film’s limitations. There are some funny scenes, mainly vignettes related to Miles’ huckster abilities. Some critics have said that these and Collin’s walking dream sequences blunted the film’s emotional power. I urge you, though, to see this film and to think hard upon the question of what and how we see. In essence, we all have “blind” spots. What is yours?

Rob Weir



Bisbee '17 Grapples with the Ugly Now and Then

Bisbee '17 (2018)
Directed by Robert Greene
Impact Partners Film, 112 minutes, PG-13.

Fernando Serrano
When a vigilante band expels 1,300 strikers from a company town, what's the story? Is it the company? The loyalists? The strikers? Is it about how the past informs the present? Or is it some other factor such as ethnicity, immigration status, or social justice?  

In 1880, the Phelps Dodge conglomerate found gold, silver, and loads of copper in a remote part of Arizona. The town of Bisbee sprung forth to straddle the pits Phelps Dodge opened. It became a classic one-industry town and remained so until 1975, when the last mine closed. Today Bisbee has about 5,600 citizens; once it had nearly 10,000. If it has a future, it will come from cafés, tourism, and the arts. Many locals are either suspicious of or openly oppose the newcomers, which is to say that part of town is Trump territory and the other half progressive. And so history repeats itself.

Bisbee '17 is a double entendre title from director Robert Greene. His film wrapped in 2017as he was shooting scenes in which locals speculated about the town's future minus Phelps Dodge. It was also when President Trump announced his no-exceptions expulsion policy toward illegal aliens. But the film's hook is what happened in Bisbee in 1917.

In brief, the radical (in rhetoric) Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) led a miners' strike. It wasn't difficult to convince hard rock miners that they toiled long hours for little pay under some of the dirtiest and most dangerous conditions imaginable. Some of the strikers were immigrants, many had grown up in Bisbee, and some of their sympathizers owned local businesses. Phelps Dodge's response was, shall we say, unique. On July 12, 1917, a hastily deputized force under a company stooge, Sheriff Harry C. Wheeler, staged an early morning raid that rounded up strikers and their allies. They were herded into bullpens, loaded into boxcars, railroaded 200 miles distant to a New Mexico dessert near the Mexican border, and dumped out with neither food nor water. It is a miracle that just two people died: a deputy making an arrest and the man he tried to put into custody. The Bisbee Deportation is one of those many buried tales from the labor wars. We don't read about it in history books because it doesn't mesh well with American freedom narratives to discuss miscarriages of justice at the hands of legal officials. The irony is that those legal officials sanctioned grossly illegal acts such as kidnapping, violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments, and suspension of habeas corpus.

How to present all of this? Greene opts for a complex, but only partially successful mix of documentary, dramatization, and historical reenactment. His is an interesting approach, but when you trifurcate a narrative, some things will fall by the wayside. I opened with a set of questions to raise the essential issue of focus. Greene does some things very well. His opening shot is quite clever. A man with a walky-talky stands in front of the local high school directing traffic so it won't interfere with the film crew. Except there isn't any traffic! Bisbee 2017 isn't exactly a dead town, but it's coughing up blood. When a one-industry town becomes a no-industry town, a substantial part of the population will move on, especially if the town is in a place where few would choose to live except to collect a paycheck. Sure, some folks have roots there and call it home but even they use terms like "quiet" to describe Bisbee. They are, of course, the same ones who are nervous about those moving into town to take advantage of cheap rents and roll the die that maybe they'll catch a renaissance wave. Plus who loves cheap rent more than the metaphorical starving artist?

Newcomers also have a habit of digging up skeletons. Is it a good idea or a bad one to commemorate an infamous event? And old labor song is titled "Which Side Are You On?" In Bisbee that pretty much means you miss the Phelps Dodge Corporation, or you think they were robber barons that only cared about what they could extract from the earth and those who shifted it. To tell that tale, Greene finds lessons in the Bisbee Deportation. He could have opted for a searing exposé-style documentary heavy on historical photos and artifacts. Alternatively, he could have done a costumed dramatization. He does both–sort of. The present/past/present structure of Greene's film is perhaps too meta for its own good. We learn about the Deportation, but we also see footage of a locals grappling with it. There are also scenes of costumed actors portraying figures from 1917, but they go in and out of character and are interviewed about both the Deportation and their feelings about the character they play and those with whom they interact. Got that? Bisbee '17 too often comes across as a good-natured pageant about distant events.

That is, when it's not force-fit commentary on today's immigration debates. Greene is correct to see parallels between 1917 and Trump's ship-'em-back-to-Mexico mentality, but he undercuts the historical record. The number one issue in Bisbee during 1917 was the IWW, not immigration. To be sure, America was on the cusp of immigration restriction in 1917 and often equated radicals and the foreign-born, but Phelps Dodge mainly cared about its right to do whatever the hell it pleased and the IWW stood in its path.

Greene's film is bold but uneven. He earns kudos, though, for unearthing willowy Mexican-American actor Fernando Serrano. He does not look like a miner and one's first impression is disbelief, but Serrano commands a range that takes us beyond the surface. Hats off to Greene also for making a film that violates the usual documentary conventions. He doesn't necessarily do justice to history, but his film has enough moments of innovation and insight to hold our interest.

Bisbee '17 is playing in small art cinemas, but it's also available for streaming.

Rob Weir


Gloria Bell is a Total Mess

Gloria Bell (2019)
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
A24, 102 minutes, R (nudity, sex, drugs, language, terrible script)

It's not a given that a film will suck if its lead actress is also an executive producer who helps bankroll it, but in the case of Gloria Bell the odds are 100%. Do not believe any good reviews you read of this film. The only reason to see this film is if you wish to view Julianne Moore's naked body. I'll admit that she still looks fabulous at age 58, but one suspects that this is the main purpose of making this film.

Moore plays the titular role. She's is the mother of two adult children, Peter (Michael Cera) and Anne (Carin Pistorious), has been divorced for 12 years, and supports herself in a soul-sucking job in an insurance company. She's also a flirt who likes to go to bars, dance with reckless abandon, and every now and then go home with someone for some late-night extracurricular activity. Although she's too old for such moping, she also exhibits all the symptoms of an empty nest griever. Into her life comes Arnold (John Turturro), also divorced, who is at turns deeply romantic and mysterious to the point that she suspects he's still married.

Gloria rocks the glasses she wears, but they are supposed to represent her struggle with aging, as are the gray-haired men she encounters in a bar where everyone dances as if they were clubbing Millennials. (Does one have to go to LA to see men in business suits dancing in a crowded bar where no one seems to be under the age of 60?) Repeated scenes of dancing and of Gloria singing along to pop tunes while driving are two of many such devices that suggest that the script is as thin as hobo soup. Add to this characters and motives that pop up, suggest something deeper is afoot, and are then dropped with little development.

All of this is especially surprising given that Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who also co-wrote the script, gave us the Oscar-wining 2017 masterpiece A Fantastic Woman. In Gloria Bell, he is lost on the dance floor. Julianne Moore almost rescues the film. She is, as always, luminous on screen even when what she's doing makes little sense. Ultimately, though, Gloria Bell is a mess made worse by infantilizing well… just about everyone. Cera sulks through the film, Pistorious labors through an underwritten role, and Gloria's friends–notably Vicky (Rita Wilson)–are more like wallpaper pasted into the background to give texture to what is a rather blank canvas. There is also a dinner party with Gloria's ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett), their kids, and his second wife Fiona (Jeanne Tripplehorn) that comes off as a contrivance to set up tension between Arnold and Gloria. Both of our principals, though, act like confused twenty-somethings with the emotional volatility to match. For heaven's sake, Gloria even needs her mommy (Holland Taylor) at a key point. So much for coming to grips with getting older! Shall I mention dumb stoner scenes, paint ball, and laughter therapy sessions?

This could have been a film about aging, failing to resolve earlier crises, being an independent woman, or knowing when to walk away. It's none of these. Although it's not yet spring, Gloria Bell is an early candidate for 2019 Turkey of Year.

Rob Weir