Jasmine Cephas Jones, Rafael Casal, and Daveed Diggs
When the film Blindspotting premiered in 2018, there was immediate interest in exploring its world via a tv series. there was just one problem: Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who'd produced and starred in the film, had no interest.
Diggs — who won a Tony and a Grammy for his work as Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton — recalls, "Lionsgate said, 'We think there's a TV show here,' and we were like, 'No. We've told this story. We're artists and we don't repeat things. We're moving on, there's nothing else here.' And they were like, 'Well, at least come in and have a meeting with us.'"
In the comedy–drama, Diggs plays Collin, a young man who, just three days from the end of his probation, witnesses a policeman shoot a Black civilian. As he struggles with what he's seen, his best friend and coworker, Miles (Casal), seems hellbent on getting them both into trouble.
A stylish, insightful exploration of racism, policing and gentrification (as seen in Oakland, California), the film uses none of the standard tropes of Black violence or death to make its points. On the contrary, it is as much about Black joy and expression as it is about catharsis.
It's no surprise Lionsgate saw more potential, but the creators had to be convinced. "You make an indie film and it's your darling," says Casal (The Good Lord Bird, Bad Education). "If I make one thing truly from the heart, I don't want to mess with it. So we were very protective of the film."
Lionsgate may have wanted a Blindspotting series to continue following the film's male leads, but Diggs and Casal didn't see that as an option. "We were happy with the ambiguity that Miles and Collin were left at," Diggs says. "But when we were shooting, when we were editing, we really wished there was more of Ashley. We were so mad we couldn't fit that into the film."
As portrayed in the film by Jasmine Cephas Jones (#FreeRayshawn, Hamilton), Ashley mostly reacts to the chaos that Miles, her boyfriend, brings into their family life. Jones's performance, particularly when she's concerned about their son, Sean, provides a brief glimpse into her complex internal world.
Casal saw this as a natural launching point, "When we threw out the idea that all we really wanted was more Ashley and they [Lionsgate] responded immediately with excitement, we started brainstorming. What could this show even look like? There was a lot to be defined."
Jones remembers how her former castmates broke the big news: "Daveed and Rafael called and said, 'We're thinking of doing a Blindspotting show, and we want you to lead it.'
"Immediately, I was like, 'Absolutely!'"
She also joined as a producer, which meant, "I was able to see how things started from scratch and have creative input about how I wanted to drive this character, which is amazing. I've never had that opportunity or been part of something right from the beginning."
So, when Blindspotting debuts the first of eight episodes on Starz on June 13, viewers should not expect to see Diggs and Casal reprise their film roles. Casal does appear as Miles; behind the scenes he served as showrunner, and he shares creator and executive producer credits with Diggs. Due to his schedule on TNT's Snowpiercer Diggs was unable to make an appearance.
"I think we've warned people," Casal says of the series' switch in focus. "For us, television is all about world-building, and I felt that the world we had established in the movie could support a bunch of other stories."
He was right. The show expands on and remixes the rhythm, joy, drama and humor that made the film so original. While the film plays with audience expectations, the series reimagines sitcom tropes and adds spoken-word and dance interludes.
Blindspotting is wholly unique, but tonally it feels like a successor to edgy family shows like Shameless and Six Feet Under.
"For the most part, the dance and spoken-word stuff was added by me or Daveed at the end," Casal explains. "We would look at scenes and go, 'This is an exposition or inner-monologue moment,' or we would look for places where it made a lot of sense. Everything is functional.
"Ashley is reserved and plays things close to the vest, so the verses give her a moment with the audience where she can be honest in a way that she can't with any of the characters."
Picking up six months after the events of the film, the series entwines Ashley's story with that of the rapidly changing Bay Area. Forced to move in with Miles's family, she is the focus, along with Miles's sister, Trish (Jaylen Barron), and his mother, Rainey (Helen Hunt, Mad About You).
Rainey is a marked departure for Hunt, who became friends with Casal after messaging him on Twitter to profess her love for Blindspotting. They started getting lunches and going on hikes at "the ass-crack of dawn," Casal says.
"We hit it off right away. She and my mother — and some of my aunts and 'play' mothers I grew up around — are very similar. She also has a lot of similarities to Daveed's mom, so right away when we started talking about the show, I was like, 'We should ask Helen to play my mom — that would be really on point.'
"It would also be a role no one would have ever seen her in before. We joked about it early on, but I couldn't tell if she was just being very polite."
As it turned out, Casal and Diggs were at Hunt's house when they got word of the greenlight. "We had a toast of champagne," Hunt recalls, "and I got to watch them be excited. And then a few weeks later, they called and said, 'We should stop dancing around this. We really want you to play this part.'
"It was just a joy. I've never worked on a job where I got more yeses in every way. Yes, creatively. Yes, when it came to Covid protections being really tight. On a lot of jobs, you hear everything you want, but none of that happens. This one was the opposite." ...
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of the latest emmy magazine HERE
Go behind the scenes of our cover shoot HERE
This article appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2021