The most memorable part of director Carlos López Estrada’s great 2018 debut film “Blindspotting” is its climax. Facing down the white police officer who he witnessed use lethal force on a Black man, Daveed Diggs’ Collin launches into a freestyle rap, in which he expresses his feelings on the relationship between the police and Black people in America, and the rapidly gentrifying city of Oakland, where he lives. It’s a borderline surreal but powerful moment.
With his new film “Summertime,” Estrada takes that concept of rap and spoken word seen in “Blindspotting” to a new level, building his entire film around it with the help of a group of 25 young poets. Set over the course of one summer day in Los Angeles, Estrada drew inspiration for his film from a spoken word poetry workshop he attended from an L.A. non-profit organization called Get Lit: Words Ignite. Working with the director of Get Lit, Diane Luby Lane, Estrada proposed a film project in which all of the young people who participated in the workshop—most of them high schoolers preparing to go to college—would write their own poem and scene for the movie, relating their own experience with their city, and with themselves. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and for the most part, it works, giving us a new idea of what a movie musical can be.
As its premise suggests, “Summertime” has a very loose narrative. Some characters have a scene and then are gone; others pop up again, culminating in a finale that unites them all. The characters and their pieces range from a guy trying to find a restaurant with a good cheeseburger, a graffiti artist, a girl dealing with a breakup, a lesbian taking control of a situation involving a homophobic man on a bus, aspiring rappers, a couple in therapy, and a frazzled fast food manager. The poets may not be actors, but their performances feel authentic because they are playing themselves, and reciting words they have written. The pieces range from emotional to funny to frustrated to angry as they express their hopes and dreams in rhyme and the diverse group of performers exhibit confidence throughout.
Estrada filmed “Summertime” on location in Los Angeles on a very tight schedule, and it serves as much as a love letter to L.A. as “Blindspotting” was to Oakland. The action takes us from pretentious cafes and bookshops to recording studios and public transportation, to more notable landmarks like Venice Beach. Some of the players may have grievances to air, but the film culminates in a joyous sequence filled with hope for what’s to come. Is it a little hokey? Maybe, but the movie is punctuated with enough heavy moments to make its happy ending feel earned.
And Estrada stages and films all of these scenes in way that is frequently visually exciting. A couple of them take the form of a more traditional musical, like a sequence in which a young woman dining with her mother laments the restrictions her mom imposes on her life as she begs her to let her go to a party that night. Her mom doesn’t approve of her red lipstick, and when their server, a woman wearing a bright red dress, is catcalled from a passing car, the woman marches out to the car and defiantly stomps on the hood, as more women wearing red dresses flood the street around her. Another scene tracks a woman as she discreetly tries to follow her ex and the woman she believes is his new girlfriend, following her from alleyways to the narrow aisles of a bookstore. The action is almost always moving, but the few moment where the camera does slow down and let us and the characters breathe are notably powerful.
“Summertime” is a portrait of Los Angeles and the diverse young people who live there, and it works best when it is just a series of vignettes, as opposed to when it attempts to connect their stories and bring the characters together, which feels less organic than the scenes that came before. And for a movie that supposedly takes place over the course of one day, the film has a great sense of place, but not of time. But the fact that it works at all is a minor miracle. The spoken word scenes could have come off as pretentious in someone else’s hands, but they all ring true, thanks in large part, I’m sure, to the fact that the performers got to write their own material. “Summertime” is a bold and inspiring experiment both when it works and when it doesn’t, and above all it leaves audiences with a greater appreciation for poetry—and excitement at the potential all this great young talent has.
The writers and members of the cast include Mila Cuda, Olympia Miccio, Tyris Winter, Amaya Blankenship, Bene’t Benton, Hanna Harris, Marco Bizio, Raul Herrera, Bryce Banks, Marquesha Babers, Walter Finnie Jr., Anna Osuna, Zach Perlmutter, Jason Alvarez, Austin Antoine, Maia Mayor, Madyson Park, Xochitl Morales, Paolina Acuna-Gonzales, Marcus James, Gordon IP, Cyrus Roberts, Pathum Madigapola, Nia Lewis, Daniel Mckinley, Khamal Iwuanyanwu, and Lukas Lane.
“Summertime” is in theaters July 9. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated R.