By C.J. Hirschfield
In 2018, the film BLINDSPOTTING, co-written and starring Oakland natives and lifelong friends Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, explored the intersection of race and class, set against a rapidly gentrifying Oakland. In addition to being critically acclaimed, the film was a love letter to the city in which it was set.
A new project spearheaded by Casal and Diggs continues the valentine, but this time in the form of an episodic series on Starz (premiere date yet to be announced). They have assembled a stellar team, and are utilizing Bay-Area influenced dance and spoken verse to advance the story of the systemic effects of the U.S. prison system seen through the eyes and hearts of affected families, lovers and friends.
Recently the crew completed nine days of filming exteriors in Oakland; some shots near the Port of Oakland, one day at City Hall and one week in West Oakland.
In a panel session at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, members of the show’s self-proclaimed “squad”—Casal, Diggs, star Jasmine Cephas Jones, choreographers Lil Buck and Jon Boogz and cinematographer Tarin Anderson– shared their thoughts about the challenges and joys of telling their story through dance and verse, and showed clips of the production-in-process.
In the original BLINDSPOTTING film, music played a key role in setting the tone, and included pieces from Weezer, Verdi, Fantastic Negrito and Tower of Power, among others. The new ½-hour, eight episode “dramedy” has taken the cultural arts to the next level. “We keep blending media,” says Diggs, “and expanding our tribe allows us to dream even bigger.”
Casal and Diggs rave about the actor portraying Ashley, the show’s main character. “It’s Jasmine’s show; we built a world around her,” is how Casal explains it.
Jasmine is actress/singer Jasmine Cephas Jones, best known for originating the dual roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in the 2015 Broadway musical HAMILTON. In 2020, Cephas Jones won a Primetime Emmy for portraying Tyisha in #freerayshawn.
“Ashley’s a superhero without the cape, raising a child on her own and trying her best,” says Diggs.
One of the clips screened as part of the program features lifelong best friends (a la Diggs and Casal) Miles and Colin telling story of their friendship over time, through dance. Tarin Anderson’s inspired cinematography follows them as they move through rooms representing childhood through adulthood; each room suggesting a different era. Wordlessly, and through movement, love, friction, connection and joy between the characters is conveyed.
Another featured clip illustrated the creative use of verse in the series, with Cephas Jones delivering intensely intimate and emotional words directly into the camera. “It was the meanest verse we threw at her, and she makes it look simple,” says Casal. The scene was brilliant.
Although most of the production was shot in Los Angeles, Daveed Diggs wants to be clear about Oakland’s role in the new series. “We’re still making a love story to the place we’re from—just adding to it.”
Watch the entire SXSW Panel discussion: