New series ‘Blindspotting’ brings Oakland, Ca versatility to forefront
Starz’s “Blindspotting” spinoff series, adapted from Daveed Diggs’ and Rafael Casal’s 2018 indie dramedy of the same name, takes place in the the streets of Oakland, Ca. Shot in West Oakland and throughout the Bay Area, the series follows Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Miles’ longtime girlfriend, who must forge ahead and figure things out on her own.
With Miles newly locked up, the series finds Ashley and her young son reluctantly moving in with his mother and half-sister, curtailing Ashley’s dreams of upward mobility and magnifying the dislocation she feels: Facing the unknown without her partner for the first time since their youth has Ashley feeling like a stranger in her own hometown. I'm very excited to witness Oakland, Ca being thrust into the limelight and though the series is geared towards a younger audience, this series is relatable to those in their 40s and 50s.
With every episode, the sounds of Oakland comes alive. From Mac Dre to Richie Rich, the musical artists gives blindspotting that authentic pass of being a Oakland series. Collaborators Diggs and Casal, with their shared backgrounds in music, theater and spoken word, see the Bay Area as a place more than the negative images and stories you have read or heard about. “Blindspotting,” is mixed with the culture of Oakland, the dancing, led by choreographers Lil Buck and Jon Boogz, who appear throughout the series, and a view from a youth perspective of the injustice that plagues communities throughout our nation. A line from the series that touches on the mass incarceration of individuals says “It worked so well, because we incarcerate more people than anywhere in the world,” that is truth in cinema. “Art is useful in a way if you can make it entertaining and also have it point at a thing; it allows us to see the thing. And oftentimes awareness is as far as we can get with a piece of art, but it’s not a small thing. Enough awareness can sometimes beget action.”
“I’ve visited loved ones in jail before. Just to get through to say you love your relative or to tell them you’re thinking about them or to show them some love is so hard to do,” said Cephas Jones. “What was really important to me, Diggs and Rafael was to show this love between Miles and Ashley and show how strong that is, and how they’ll do anything to keep their family together. They know that this system is trying to break them, and it’s really their goal to try to beat that and make it work.” Expanding a brief but potent supporting turn in the film into a commanding starring role, Cephas Jones, who first starred with Diggs in “Hamilton,” steps into a producing role for the first time as “Blindspotting” shifts its focus to the women, families and community dealing with the ripple effects of mass incarceration. Directed by Carlos López Estrada and starring Diggs and Casal, Ashley can’t bring herself to speak, whether she’s waiting in vain for a visitation, unleashing her frustrations at work or agonizing over how to explain to her son, Sean (Atticus Woodward), where his father is.
Greenlighted during the pandemic and developed by a writers room in Vancouver, where Diggs was filming his TNT sci-fi series “Snowpiercer,” “Blindspotting” was written by Diggs, Casal and screenwriters Priscila García-Jacquier, Alanna Brown, “Jinn” filmmaker Nijla Mu’min and Benjamin Earl Turner, who makes his acting debut on the show. Diggs and Casal also recruited Bay Area friends to share their lived experiences with the predominantly female writing staff and cast, a process Casal, who also serves as showrunner and directed the season finale, described as humbling. The extended artistic family built around “Blindspotting” included longtime friends like Turner, returning actor Margo Hall, crew that had worked on the film and Oscar winner Helen Hunt, a fan of the feature who’d become hiking buddies and socially distanced movie night friends with the filmmakers.
Plans to shoot extensively in the Bay Area were cut short by local ordinances. Instead, following COVID-19 protocols, the series shot interiors on L.A. stages before heading north in its final weeks to film exteriors on location, hoping to capture Oakland‘s unmistakable essence. Which is how Brooklyn-raised Cephas Jones found herself in Oakland last year dancing to Mac Dre, for a scene so infectious the crew joined in bouncing along to the late rapper’s iconic Bay Area anthem. “We did so many takes I was like, ‘I’m really gonna dream about the Thizzle Dance and it’s never gonna leave me,’” she joked.
Having spent nearly a decade writing the film, which launched their respective acting careers, Diggs and Casal considered Collin and Miles’ stories told. But the series offered a chance to explore more characters, put on more new talent, rep more Bay culture and foster new conversations — particularly about how the prison industrial complex reaches into communities and affects everyone it touches. Turning “Blindspotting” into a series wasn’t a notion the filmmakers had considered until Lionsgate, which acquired the film out of the Sundance Film Festival, pitched the idea. Diggs, Casal and the film’s producers, Keith Calder and Jess Wu Calder (“You’re Next,” “One Night In Miami ...”), decided to build it around Ashley, and Starz came aboard after the project was championed by Kathryn Tyus-Adair, the network’s senior vice president of original programming. Should they get a second season, Casal and Diggs hope to bring more characters and communities into the “Blindspotting” world, bring production to the East Bay and build infrastructure in the area that might help others tell their own Bay Area stories. Both are looking to springboard into the next stage of their careers behind the camera, Diggs as producer helping artist friends get projects off the ground and Casal with an eye to direct his first feature.
After hustling as artists for most of their lives without others pointing a clear path forward, said Casal, “it’s cruel to slam the door behind you.” “Maybe that’s our Bay Area upbringing, but I do think it’s our responsibility to try to have an impact on the systems and institutions that we have to work with in order to make the show,” Casal concluded. “We may not be able to do that overnight. We may not be able to fundamentally shift one of those things. But we can at least chip away at it.” He grinned. “And we’ll go make some sellout projects later.”