Arts and Culture

Two Films, Two Oaklands

This past summer the city of Oakland, California was the setting for two critically acclaimed films. Sorry to Bother You tells the story of Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), a 20-something who takes a job at a call center to pay rent, and Blindspotting tells the story of Collin (Daveed Diggs), a convict trying to make it through his last three days of parole without running into trouble. Based solely on plot, these films have little in common. However, in due time these films will be studied together if only because of their proximity in time and space.

The best way to enter these films is to see them as talking about the same issue, but from different angles. Both are ostensibly about race relations, and draw clear lines between disparate groups. In Sorry, this contrast is between workers and their corporate overseers. In Blindspotting, the contrast is between native Oaklanders and gentrifying Hipsters. In both films, the protagonists navigate around these two sides and reveals some nuances. The most overt of these themes is the way in which voice is used to mark characters by their race and class.

In Sorry, Cassius succeeds in his job due to his ability to ‘use his white voice.’ As he ascends higher up the corporate ladder, his ‘white voice’ begins to creep into his everyday speech, threatening to consume his identity. Cass is contrasted by his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Detroit is an artist, and is free to say whatever she wants. However, this speech does little to combat the corporate power in the film. In Sorry, the White Voice is shown to be powerful, but with no freedom, while the Black Voice is free, but with no power.

In Blindspotting, ownership of voice is placed within the context of gentrification. While Collin is calm and cautious throughout his film, he is contrasted by his white friend, Miles (Rafael Casal). Miles is a non-black character who acts out the stereotype of being a black man. He wears grills and demonstrates his mastery of ‘street english’ by selling hair-straighteners to a black-owned salon. He is dating a black woman and hates the hipsters that are invading ‘his’ town. He rejoices in playing into a gangster fantasy and sets the plot into motion by buying a gun “just because.” Miles rejoices at playing black without consequences, while Collin is black and forever burdened by the label of ‘convict,’ haunted by the sight of a police involved shooting he could not stop for fear of retaliation. Using the contrast set up in Sorry, we can see that Miles possesses both the Black and White Voices, but is only aware of one. Near the end of the film, there are points of reflections, particularly one where Miles finds that he has the same tattoo as one of the hipsters that he despises.

Ultimately, both Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting are films about code-switching and the effects it has on one’s self-identity. It is no wonder then that these films both come out of a city in flux,  grappling with it’s own identity. How does one view Oakland? Is it the capital city of gang violence or a city of tech upstarts? Is it an old industrial port or a new cultural center? Is it a predominantly black city or a predominately white city? Does it even matter? These two stories show us the conflict between binaries, and when viewed together tells us that we must find a way to live between binaries, however hard it may seem.