The cast of 'Blindspotting' the tv show which premieres June 13 on STARZ. Credit: STARZ

When the film Blindspotting premiered in 2018, viewers got a chance to see Oakland and its residents through the lenses of childhood friends Collin (played by Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal). The acclaimed film touched on incarceration, police brutality, gentrification, and belonging in the always-changing city of Oakland. 

A TV adaptation of the same name is set to premiere this Sunday, June 13, on STARZ. The show picks up six months from where the film left off after Miles is arrested for drug possession on New Year’s Eve and taken into custody. But rather than keeping the focus on Collin and Miles, Blindspotting, the series, follows the story of  Miles’ partner Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) as she navigates the world without him as a mother, daughter, and sister-in-law. 

Community screening event

What: A free outdoor screening of the new TV series, “Blindspotting,” with in-person appearances by series co-creator Rafael Casal and actors Jasmine Cephas Jones, Benjamin Turner, Candace Nicholas-Lippman, and Jaylen Barron

When: Saturday, June 12. Event begins with a DJ at 6:30 p.m. followed by a screening of Episode 1 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Webster Street, between Grand Avenue and 22nd Street

Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt also appears in the series as Rainey, Miles’s mother. Hunt came to the project after developing a friendship with Diggs and Casal, the result of a tweet she’d sent them praising the film

“It is as crazy as it sounds. She was on my TV screen as she tweeted about the film,” Casal said of the unexpected reach-out from Hunt. “I slid in her dm’s, and from there, a beautiful friendship was formed. She was loving and generous.” 

Hunt’s portrayal of Rainey is one of a caring and free-spirited woman coming to terms with the fact that her son is incarcerated, while also navigating how to best support her daughter-in-law, Ashley, grandson Sean (Atticus Woodward), and rebellious and equally free-spirited daughter, Trish (Jaylen Barron).

“We messaged each other, and next thing you know, we were talking about how we should be working together someday,” Hunt said of her friendship with Casal and Diggs, who wrote the original film and wrote and produced the series. “When they finally got the green light, I wanted to make sure that I could fit in this world that they had created, especially as a well-known actress. You don’t want to come and take something that is so deeply authentic and make it look less real.”

While we don’t see Collin (his absence is explained as him moving out of state to get a fresh start), we do catch glimpses of Miles—both in prison and as a voice in Ashley’s head who witnesses her struggles, and speaks with his quick-mouth commentary only to her as an apparition. 

Although primarily filmed in Los Angeles, a number of scenes were shot in the Town, including around West Oakland, the Port of Oakland, Frank Ogawa Plaza, and Joaquin Miller Park. The show also offers glimpses of Oakland’s food and culture scene and features a number of writers, directors, extras, and actors from the Bay Area. And much like the movie, the series infuses the language of its characters with plenty of Bay Area slang and references to song lyrics by local artists.

From left to right: Jasmine Cephas Jones and Rafael Casal filming at City Hall in Oakland earlier this year. Credit: STARZ

Locals Diggs, Casal, and Brooklynite Jones produced the series, and Diggs and Casal, who wrote the original film, also wrote all eight episodes of the series. Additional show writers include Oaklander Nijla Mu’min, Alanna Brown, Antioch native Benjamin Earl Turner who plays Earl. Sacramento native Candace Nicholas-Lippman plays Collin’s sister, Janelle.

The writers’ decision to tell their story from the female perspectives of Ashley, Rainey, Trish, and Janelle was an intentional deviation from the original film. And for Jones, it was imperative that the series honor women’s voices and convey what Oakland means to its residents. 

“It was a family affair, being back. I got to see a sideshow for the first time,” Jones said of filming in West Oakland. “It was great to be immersed in the world that we’re talking about in the show. Oakland is such a great place.”

Jones’ character Ashley evolves over the course of the series, and viewers are given an intimate look at what goes on inside her head in the form of Shakespearean-like monologues, a narrative device that was also utilized in the film. 

“I wanted to be very honest and real,” Jones said of the internal monologues, which were written by Casal and Diggs. “Her going into heightened verse really is her most, purest self, and you really understand what she’s going through emotionally.”

The show tackles themes of sexual harassment, sex work, and female friendship, and through Jones’ character, examines what it’s like to navigate the world as a woman of color. 

“We wanted to shed light on how Ashley, being a woman of color, couldn’t speak up because she’s afraid to lose her job,” Jones said, “and how many times, in the workplace, women have to deal with being mistreated.” 

Dancing scenes and interpretive dance sequences are a large part of the show. Credit: STARZ

The two breakout stars of the show are, without a doubt, Nicholas-Lippman as Janelle and Benjamin Earl Turner as Earl, who is on house arrest renting a room out of Collin’s mom’s house. The duo’s chemistry on screen and their comedic chops throughout the show are worth paying attention to. Belying their natural chemistry is the fact that the two had never met in person before filming their first scene together.

“I felt so inspired after watching the film, Nicholas-Lippman said. “As an actor, I always like to do art that has a message behind it.”

Turner was in the writer’s room, in addition to being an actor. “I’ve known Daveed and Rafa since before the movie. I found them through YouthSpeaks,” a Bay Area nonprofit for teen artists, he said.

Fans of the movie will enjoy the many “easter eggs” placed throughout the show, with actors from the film popping up unexpectedly in new roles, and some scenes harkening back to moments in the movie. One scene with Trish, for example, will remind viewers of a scene in the film where Miles is selling a boat to make a quick buck. “Trish is another version of an interesting Miles-type character,” said Casal. 

Although filming in Oakland during the pandemic was challenging, Casal sees potential for the city becoming more of a filmmaking hub. 

“We’re now just discovering what the hurdles are,” Casal said. “We need more countywide incentives for productions” and “creators need to make a point to come back.” Despite being a smaller city with a less-developed film scene, Casal believes Oakland has enough qualified local talent to support large productions. Growing the filmmaking scene would also bring much-needed revenue into Oakland and the Bay Area in the form of taxes and local economic activity, he said. 

“When a production comes to town, it spends money locally,” Casal said. “It eats at restaurants. It hires local teams. The big thing that the Bay has to do to make it happen is, support it. The Bay’s gotta love it.” 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.