In 2018 Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs wrote and starred in “Blindspotting,” a look at the gentrification of Oakland alongside a parolee witnessing an officer-involved shooting. The film was bold, in-your-face, and utterly fantastic. How could lightning possibly strike twice? That comes in the form of Starz’s television adaptation, also called “Blindspotting.”
This expansion of the existing feature isn’t as simple as plopping a new character in the same exact situation. There has to be enough material to extend for several episodes. Thankfully, Casal and Diggs crack the code, crafting a series that is, at times, hilarious, thought-provoking, lyrical, and provocative.
Jasmine Cephas Jones, who played Ashley in the original film, takes centerstage here. It’s New Year’s Eve, presumably after the events of the film have concluded, and Ashley is ready to celebrate with Miles (Casal). Unfortunately, Miles is being arrested for drug possession, another screw-up in a 12-year-long relationship for the pair. Ashley, now on her own for the first time in a while, is forced to figure out what to do with their son, Sean (Atticus Woodward). Miles suggests the pair move in with his mother, Rainey (Helen Hunt) and younger sister, Trish, (Jaylen Barron) until he gets out.
There’s an immediate shift in the tone of this take on “Blindspotting” compared to the original film. That film, though humorous in parts, was a more somber look at real-world issues. That’s not to say this series isn’t equally as socially conscious, but the tone is more buoyant, starting with Ashley asking Miles as he’s being put in a police car about their online banking information. This is a series about a woman who, for various reasons, has been in service to caring for her man and what happens when she realizes how sheltered she’s become.
Cephas Jones beautifully captures all the nuances of Ashley, many of which didn’t immediately come through in the feature film. Whether she’s exchanging dialogue with Hunt or breaking the fourth wall to deliver poetic verses, Cephas Jones exposes the deep well that is Ashley’s soul. With Miles gone, Ashley starts to wonder what their relationship truly is about. She knows “I am my man’s right hand,” but cannot answer what he is to her. When Cephas Jones and Casal are together, whether their characters are conversing through a glass partition or Ashley starts seeing Miles in other imaginary characters, it’s easy to understand the relationship of this pair.
Ashley spends a great deal of time wondering who she is, especially in conjunction with being born and raised in Oakland. Ashley finds herself torn between the grill-wearing girl whose Oakland roots run deep and the prim, proper woman faking a British accent in her role as a concierge at a prominent hotel. This duplicity causes her to butt heads with Miles’ sister, Trish, a young woman engaging in sex work with aspirations of financial success.
If Cephas Jones is the anchor of this series, than Jaylen Barron is the storm causing chaos wherever she goes. Barron goes beyond just being a female take on Miles’ character. The actress creates an ambitious, if highly immature, woman who refuses to give Ashley an inch. Both women have similar aspirations, but look at their connection to their hometown and each other differently. Add into the mix the quiet, contemplative, and just as funny Helen Hunt as Miles’ mother; Rainey could easily fall into the quirky hippie archetype — doing loud breathing techniques to relax in public — but she and Ashley bond over having to make difficult decisions as mothers.
Alongside Miles’ family there’s Janelle (Candace Nicholas-Lippman). Janelle has been out of the country and returns to the Bay Area to reconnect with Ashley and assert her own identity. She’s paired up with Earl (Benjamin Earl Turner), a young man on house arrest trying to stay on the straight and narrow while also indulging his cravings for the taco truck across the street. Their characters are nicely integrated alongside Ashley, but because Ashley’s story feels more immediate they often feel like the B-team. It’ll be interesting to see how their stories assert themselves individually throughout the season.
The look of the series, starting with the opening titles which are shown on the marquee of Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre, is fresh and bombastic. Those moments where Cephas Jones talks to the audience are kinetic, beautifully rendered moments that emphasize the actress’ stagework and general command of a room. In one episode she dances down a hotel hallway, with various employees performing around her in a beautiful blend of art and commentary on marginalized employees. Later in that same episode Cephas Jones performs verses while smashing up a hotel room with a tennis racquet.
“Blindspotting” doesn’t pack as large a punch as the original movie did, but as a series it creates a slice-of-life story that’s fun and engaging. With Cephas Jones at the helm the series moves along at a brisk clip without forsaking an ounce of humor. The series tagline may be “Welcome to the ordeal,” but the ordeal is a welcome one.
“Blindspotting” premieres on Starz on June 13 at 9 p.m.