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I thought the 2018 feature Blindspotting was a mess, but it was the sort of mess more movies should aspire to be. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s screenplay took big thematic swings and Carlos López Estrada’s direction was full of bombastic flourishes — part dark comedy, part musical, part polemic, part Bay Area travelogue. Even the plot beats that didn’t come together were surrounded by big ideas and beautiful things to listen to and see.
Starz’s new TV adaptation of Blindspotting lacks what was probably the primary source of the movie’s appeal, namely the rapport between longtime friends Diggs and Casal, and it doesn’t aspire to exactly the same level of finger-on-the-pulse agitprop. But it may end up evolving into the definitive version of this story. Through the six episodes sent to critics, this Blindspotting quickly settles into its own confident voice, and the characters, especially the new faces, are proving to be appealing vehicles for some of the same themes and more.
The series begins on New Year’s Day 2018 as Casal’s Miles is arrested for drug possession, with criminal complications that leave his longtime girlfriend Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) in limbo. She and six-year-old Sean (Atticus Woodward) can’t afford to stay in their current apartment, so they move in with Miles’ partially reformed hippy mom Rainey (Helen Hunt) and half-sister Trish (Jaylen Barron), a strip-club den mother with progressive sex-work dreams (and naked friends in the living room).
The ensemble also includes Ashley’s friend Janelle (Candace Nicholas-Lippman), back in the neighborhood after a long absence and living with her mother Nancy (Margo Hall) and tenant Earl (Benjamin Earl Turner), a new parolee.
Narratively, there’s no need to have seen Blindspotting the feature before watching the series. Though Diggs co-created the series with Casal and co-wrote several episodes, his Collin doesn’t appear at all and is mentioned rarely. Casal served as showrunner in addition to co-creating, but Miles pops up only occasionally and in more of a romantic/comedic capacity than in the film, where the reckless character seemed generally on the verge of causing a disaster. Even though Jones’ Ashley is a returning figure, she might as well be a new character in this more fully dimensionalized capacity. And guest star Anthony Ramos stepping in for Nyambi Nyambi as Yorkie, a member of Collin and Miles’ moving crew, becomes less about continuity with the movie and more about the brand’s ongoing commitment to Hamilton cast originals as well as extending The Summer of Anthony Ramos.
Where seeing the movie might come in handy is in eliminating the acclimation curve for the Blindspotting voice, which includes the possibility of audience-directed spoken-word poetry breaking out at any moment, as well as dance interludes, usually set to music from Oakland-area hip hop artists. Estrada doesn’t return behind the camera, but Seith Mann, director of the first two episodes, has a comparable aesthetic inspired by pugnacious and poetic early films of Spike Lee. If the movie was Do the Right Thing transferred to Oakland, this is She’s Gotta Have It by the Bay.
The movie’s inciting event was a horrible act of police violence, but Casal and Diggs have opted here for subject matter that allows for more of a slow burn — namely, sentencing disparities. The series opens on the night marijuana became legal in California, and hypocrisy relating to weed’s former criminalization is a key source of incredulity and anger. This Blindspotting further explores Miles’ frustrations at the shifting economic developments in Oakland, while being just as much a love letter to the city, its music, its culture and the rhythms of its day-to-day life. And, like the movie, the series is invested deeply in notions of racial identity and belonging, culminating in a sixth episode that’s built around the unlikely intersection of Paddington appreciation and a debate about skin tone.
It’s provocative, funny and, like the film, seems initially allergic to subtlety. Jones is a thoroughly sympathetic center to the story and she slays the spoken word interludes, which never feel quite as organic coming from her character as they did from Diggs and Casal.
Most impressive is how well the series works when it’s quieter and less performatively dogmatic — traits associated with Collin and Miles — and lets the voices of the new cast of characters take over. Trish is still amply outspoken and wild, but she’s angry about how she’s always angry, and her arc involves learning to strategically deploy her rage — a lesson the show is learning as well. The fifth and sixth episodes border on bottle episodes — they consist mostly of conversations in dining rooms — favoring a stillness that makes the dance scene at the end of the fifth episode hit harder than anything previously. The dance breaks are about expressing the inexpressible, but play well in these talky episodes.
Those later episodes begin to fully utilize some of the new characters. Rainey starts as a familiar kind of Bay Area feminist — still halfway living in a Berkeley that hasn’t existed for decades — and it’s great to see Hunt jumping back into initially broad comedy and then finding what’s poignant in this woman whose sense of loss often has to take a backseat to the loss felt by Ashley and Sean. I especially grew to love Turner’s Earl, a stoner who starts with similarities to several Lakeith Stanfield characters of the type, only to become the surprising heart and most reliable source of laughs on the show. Turner is an Oakland-based multi-hyphenate who has never done TV before, but it’s a guarantee that this exposure will have people looking him up.
One place Blindspotting has ample room for improvement, and a place you know it will want to improve, is in its treatment of Oakland. I’m attributing to COVID production protocols the relatively underpopulated community scenes and the somewhat limited use of locations. All this means is that Blindspotting looks a little sparse and feels a little less in love with the city you know Casal and Diggs love deeply. Hopefully things will continue to loosen up on the health front so that the show can wholly embrace Oakland in a second season, having worked through many of its initial growing pains in these episodes.
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