- Carlos López Estrada
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 53 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
O that my vexation were weighed,
and all my calamity laid in the balances!
For then it would be heavier than the sand of the sea;
therefore my words have been rash.
For the arrows of the Almighty[a] are in me;
my spirit drinks their poison;
the terrors of God are arrayed against me.
After watching this insightful film, I felt the same way after viewing Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society— “Wow!” Here is a film that transports me into a neighborhood where my white skin would mark me as an intruder deserving of no friendly welcome or acceptance. Thanks to Carlos López Estrada‘s direction, an insightful script by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs (the latter famous for Broadway’s Hamilton), and a talented cast, I can see and feel something of what it is like to be on the other side of the color bar. The film is both the story of an interracial friendship and of the plight of the black male in current-day, supposedly post-Civil Rights era USA.
The story takes place during three days leading up to the end of ex-con Collin’s (Daveed Diggs) one-year probation, and then right afterward. He is almost constantly in the company of his best friend since grade school, the Hispanic Miles (Rafael Casal), who has placed him in the back seat of a car owned by a black-market gun dealer. Colin, freaking out when the dealer displays a small arsenal of handguns, asks to be let out of the car, lest a cop should pull them over and he be busted for parole violation. No police are around, but when he and Miles are let out of the car, Colin still asks his friend to ditch the gun. The crazy-acting friend refuses.
The two buddies work for a moving company, at which Colin’s former girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar) is the receptionist. We presume that it is Miles who vouched with the boss to obtain work for his friend. He reminds Collin that he was the only one who visited him in prison every week, Val not even calling him on the phone. Collin and Miles hang out at the latter’s apartment with his wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and little son Sean (Ziggy Baitinger), as well as going out partying—but the black man must return to his halfway house by 11 each night if he is to stay out of trouble.
Val, regarding her ex-lover as a lost cause, has attempted to move on by enrolling in college. At first, she resists his attempts to re-establish their relationship. She is cramming for a psychology test, but she cannot resist his charms, and so allows him to hang out with her while she is studying. She is the one who brings up the psychological term that gives its name to the film—we see in her textbook the black and white drawing called “Rubin’s Vase.” It is a visual illusion in which one sees either a vase outlined between two dark sides or the dark profiles of two faces looking at each other. The brain will not allow us to see both, hence a blind spot, similar, the filmmakers are saying, to the inability of whites and blacks to see beyond the stereotypes imposed by their prejudices.
The story is set in Oakland, which as the camera shows us in many a location shot, is a bright and vibrant place where its active residents move about amidst colorful murals and many small, brightly painted cottages. The two friends are well aware of the process of gentrification that is pushing many of its older residents out of their homes. It also a dangerous place for a black male—you might recall that the brilliant film Fruitvale Station, about the murder of a young black man by the cops at a BART station, was set in Oakland, as is the current Sorry to Bother You.
As each day passes we worry that Collin will get caught in some perceived parole violation and returned to jail.
Another intense moment of suspense comes when Miles’ little boy finds his father’s gun and plays with it. His mother, Miles, and Collin freeze in fear for a moment. The boy pays no attention to their plea. Collin rushes over to wrest the gun away. The angry Ashley berates Miles for buying a gun and not telling her, and the two friends leave, with Collin also criticizing his friend. As the two part, with the gun still in one of Collin’s pocket, I kept saying quietly, “Get rid of the gun.” It is night, and Collin is the lone pedestrian. A police car passes, and then comes around with its spotlight trained on Collin.
Even more intense: Collin is driving home to beat his curfew when the traffic light is stuck on red. He sits there and sits there, and we fear that he will just start up—who hasn’t done this late at night? —and be spotted by a cop in a patrol car. Instead, when he finally does get going, at another intersection he almost runs into a black man. Next comes a white cop (Ethan Embry) who yells after the fugitive and quickly guns him down. He and Collin stare at one another—not for long before the black man steps on the gas pedal and roars away, but long enough for their images to be embedded upon their memories forever. This tragic incident haunts Collin’s dreams.
There are two confrontations that lift López Estrada‘s film to the level of Boyz N the Hood. The first is in connection with the argument over Miles and his gun when we learn why Collin was arrested and imprisoned several years earlier. He had been a bouncer in a bar when he got into a fight with a drunken white patron, their fist fight spilling out into the street. At a moment when it looked like the white tough was getting the upper hand, Miles had come to his friend’s aid, beating the patron as savagely as Collin had been doing. Clearly as guilty as Collin, it was just Collin who had been sentenced to prison. Miles had embraced his friend and his black culture as much as possible, but he was still, Collin’s points out, privileged by his white skin—saved from prison by blind spotting.
The second encounter occurs during a moving job for white family when Collin is startled by a photograph on a table. It is that of the white cop who had shot the black man in the back and gotten off unscathed. Searching through the house, Collin finds him working in his garage workshop. Collin has not ditched the gun, and now brandishes it at the white man. Miles, looking for his co-worker, sees the picture, its glass covering smashed. He rushes into the garage but stands by, not daring to intervene. The thoroughly upset Collin breaks out into a rap, a rhyming tirade that on paper looks too unlikely, yet works perfectly in the film. It’s as if the plaintive protest of Job against his unjust suffering were set to rapid-fire rhyme. It is the moral equivalent of that moment in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing when Mookie diverts the angry crowd from attacking the owner of an Italian pizza parlor by throwing a trash can through its window, the result being that they attack the restaurant instead of its owner.
There is a lot of street language that might make the film problematic for use by a religious group, but those willing to look beyond this (as many have done with Boyz N the Hood) will gain new insights into the racial turmoil that still roils our society, decades after the mission of the Civil Rights movement supposedly was accomplished. This is sure to make Visual Parables Top Ten Films of 2018 list.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August 2018 issue of Visual Parables.