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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
In 2018, "Blindspotting" was one of the buzziest movies to come out of the Sundance Film Festival. The comedy-drama stars Daveed Diggs as Collin, a convicted felon who witnesses a police shooting with only three days left of his parole, and Rafael Casal as Miles, Collin's childhood best friend who's never far from trouble.
Now "Blindspotting" has been spun off into a series on Starz, offering a fresh and more expansive take on the movie's themes around incarceration and race. Collin is gone, but Miles returns, as does Miles's girlfriend Ashley, played by Jasmine Cephas Jones, who has become the story's central focus. And there's a colorful cast of new characters and musical set pieces to boot. I'm Aisha Harris, and today, we're talking about "Blindspotting" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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HARRIS: Welcome back. Joining us is Odie Henderson, who is a film critic for rogerebert.com. Great to have you back, Odie.
ODIE HENDERSON: Thanks for having me.
HARRIS: Also with us is J.C. Howard. He is a producer of NPR's TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. Also great to have you back, J.C.
JC HOWARD, BYLINE: Hello. Thanks for having me.
HARRIS: Yeah. I know you are an Oakland native.
HOWARD: I am.
HARRIS: So I'm excited to talk with you about this.
HOWARD: Oh, I have many thoughts on the Oakland piece of this.
HARRIS: Awesome. Well, "Blindspotting's" first season premiered on Starz last month and stars Jasmine Cephas Jones and Rafael Casal as Ashley and Miles, an Oakland couple raising their young son Sean, played by Atticus Woodward. Miles is arrested for drug possession, and he's ultimately convicted and sentenced to a five-year prison term. The show zeroes in on what it means to have a loved one locked up as Ashley struggles with telling Sean why his dad is gone.
The ensemble is rounded out by several characters new to the "Blindspotting" universe, including Miles's sister, Trish, and mom, Rainey, played by Jaylen Barron and Helen Hunt - yes, that Helen Hunt - Ashley's friend Janelle, played by Candace Nicholas-Lippman, and a recent parolee on house arrest named Earl, played by Benjamin Earl Turner.
"Blindspotting," the show, is set in 2018, picking up a few months after the events of the original movie. But while there are callbacks here and there, viewers don't have to worry about having seen the movie before digging into this show. The biggest difference is that Daveed Diggs' character, Collin, does not appear in the series, though Diggs serves as a co-creator and executive producer alongside Casal, and he co-wrote a few of the episodes. The show borrows from its source in other ways, most notably its deeply rooted love for Oakland and Bay Area culture. Both Diggs and Casal are natives. And like the film, the series incorporates music, poetry and magical realism.
So Odie, I know you were a huge fan of the original film, the 2018 movie. It was, I think, your top movie of that year or one of the top movies of that year.
HENDERSON: It was my top movie of the year and my top movie of the decade.
HARRIS: OK. So I'm so glad we have you here to talk about this. Can you talk about why you loved the movie and how you think the show compares to the movie?
HENDERSON: Well, it's interesting because - forgive me, my voice is going from karaoke-ing (ph) too much.
HENDERSON: In 2018, there were three movies from Oakland. There was "Sorry To Bother You," there was "Black Panther" and there was this movie. And they were three different ways of showing Black people doing things that they don't normally do in movies. There's a lot of magical realism in the movie, and it comes onto the TV show as well. And I just fell for it. I just loved the way it was paced.
I think the movie is darker than the TV show, but all the things where people go on their little flights of fancy and have little rap moments or there's dancing or people are going into their own minds - it's fascinating to just watch Black people do this. I really got on that vibe. The show kind of brings it down a little bit and has a lot of that stuff in the background more, but it's more present, I think, on the show, and it's also presented a little more lightly.
HARRIS: Yeah. And when you say it's more present, do you mean the magical realism or sort of the themes in terms of just race and incarceration?
HENDERSON: Well, I think the movie is a lot more haunting. Daveed Diggs' character has seen someone shot, and that haunts him throughout the entire movie whereas this show was haunted but by a slightly less violent thing. I mean, the show was haunted by fathers in prison and mothers who have to deal with that, families who have to deal with that. So the show was haunted too, but I think it's a little lighter than having to carry the death of somebody on your conscience, you know, having seen that.
HENDERSON: That's what I mean about it being lighter.
HARRIS: Right, right, right. Yeah, it reminds me a little bit - or actually a lot - of Ava DuVernay's movie "Middle Of Nowhere," which is also a film about what it means to be the person left behind, the person who has a loved one in prison. It's not something we usually see. Often, we're seeing what it's like to be behind bars, and I think obviously that is a very valid and very important experience to witness. But I also think that what I appreciate about the show is the way in which it's really about what it means to mourn someone who's not dead but who is lost to the system. J.C...
HARRIS: ...Oakland native.
HARRIS: And also, I should say that I now live in Oakland. Actually, it's almost been a year now, as of, like, 10 months ago. They filmed this show very close to where I live, so I was - I saw it happening. I didn't actually see the stars, but I was able to see the streets blocked off. So it was very familiar to me. But J.C...
HARRIS: ...You are a native, so how do you feel about the way this show puts on for Oakland 'cause it really...
HOWARD: It puts on.
HOWARD: Well, first of all, let me say congratulations on your upgrade...
HOWARD: ...In moving into Oakland. It's, like - it's amazing. It's a good city. And listen, let me first put it out there that if you have ever spoken to me for more than 10 minutes, I probably mentioned at least three times that I was born and raised in Oakland. It has come up three times already on this show that I was born and raised in Oakland. I basically lived there my entire life.
And I grew up watching movies like "Friday" and "Home Alone: Lost In New York." And I had Spike Lee movies and Woody Allen movies around, so I got to see these rich movies set in these vibrant cities like New York and L.A., but almost every time there'd be a movie or TV show set in my region, it would be in San Francisco. And San Francisco is fine, don't get me wrong. But San Francisco is no Oakland. We did have "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," and we had, like, a mention on "The Simpsons" but not a lot of high-profile shows and movies in Oakland.
Man, is "Blindspotting" set in Oakland - I mean, aggressively set in Oakland. I know we'll probably talk more about this, but as an Oakland kid at heart, it's really just nice to see my city on a screen. And I fully realize that there can't be movies and shows in every city, right? But coming from a place as culture-rich and sometimes troubled as Oakland, it provides a complex and, as "Blindspotting" shows, a beautiful backdrop for storytelling. So my first thought is that I kind of honestly wonder how people who don't have that same connection to Oakland - how those people see the movie. But I also feel like if I could identify with "Friday" and I could identify with other shows set in the 'hood and other movies set in the 'hood, then other people can identify pretty well with "Blindspotting."
Now, as for the content of the show, I think it stands really well on its own. If I have one gripe about it, the problem that I have with the way Oakland is often portrayed in media is it is shown as kind of crime-ridden and violent. And while "Blindspotting" does not fall into that, it does, as has been mentioned already - it focuses a lot on the carceral system, right? And to be sure, many people from Oakland may well know someone who has gone to jail or had a run-in with the police. But the show seems to revolve around prison in ways I don't think it needs to, particularly with the men, from Collin to Miles to Earl and even Sean's relationship to prison. And while all of that is real, my concern, frankly, as an Oaklander, is that many people from outside of Oakland may come away with this weird impression of life in Oakland as kind of centering around and focusing on people in prison.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I can totally see that concern, especially considering, as you said, there are so few movies and shows set in Oakland.
HOWARD: Right. Exactly.
HARRIS: I've had my own issues with the - at least the first few episodes of the show and somewhat with the movie. My biggest gripe, I think, is the fact that, like, just for me, spoken word slam poetry is just not my thing. And I've had to come to accept this. It doesn't do anything for me when I hear it. My eyes roll in the back of my head. Like, I've tried. I've gone to shows at the Nuyorican Cafe in New York and all that. Like, I can't. And this show is very, very heavy on that.
HARRIS: And I think for me part of the issue with that kind of expression of art and language is just I feel like there's a pattern that is so easy to slip into speaking, and it to me disconnects from what the person is actually saying. Like, I'd love to play a little clip of Jasmine Cephas Jones' character, Ashley. In this scene, she's kind of reeling from Miles having just gone to prison and, like, what she's going to do now that he is gone. And there's just something about the patter that even someone as talented and amazing of an actress and performer as she is - it just doesn't work for me. And yeah, let's just play a little clip of that.
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JASMINE CEPHAS JONES: Let me breathe. A lockbox are I and he. A 12-year clock got us. We bonded deep. We crisscrossed ourselves a doctrine till it was our policy. We built a church of truth with rough tongues and hid the gun from company. We just built ourselves a temple from the ruins we grew up in, and now the rug's pulled free.
HARRIS: I appreciate the visual aspects of it when it gets super theatrical. There are often moments of just music and dancing. They have this amazing ensemble of dancers who often represent men who are in prison. They are wearing sort of the prison jumpsuits, and they kind of float around and dance around the characters in certain scenes. But those moments just don't work for me.
What I do appreciate about the sort of magical realism moments is the way in which they use Miles. In the movie, Miles is very much a hothead, total just, like - unaware of his whiteness and sort of was the type of character who felt like he got a pass because he grew up, quote, unquote, "in the hood" and around other Black people and got a pass for all of these things.
HARRIS: And here he's a lot more toned down. And he - even though he is in prison, he does show up in interesting ways, where he is kind of a ghost who's haunting her. They have conversations back and forth. And I love those moments between them because I think it really solidifies their connection. Even though they are apart during this, it builds that connection that we haven't seen because they've been together for 12 years. And we're being dropped into this story. But I think by the fourth and the fifth episodes, it really starts to hit its groove and the characters really start to find their way.
HENDERSON: Right. I think it's Shakespearean. I think the ghost of Miles and the rap things are like soliloquies.
HENDERSON: And they get dropped in. And it's very, very Shakespearean. So I really appreciate that. I used to do slam poetry, so I know not to invite you to any of my...
HARRIS: Sorry, Odie.
HARRIS: I'll be there for karaoke but not...
HARRIS: ...Not your (laughter) slam poetry.
HOWARD: You know, it's funny because I might say that this amounts to, in some ways, a half-hour sitcom - right? - like, the format, the humor, the space between laughs. But Aisha, as you say, it's also, like, wholly different because it has these moments of heart and emotional clarity that are highlighted by the use of verse and spoken word and modern dance. And I feel like those things sort of work together to underscore deeper moments and almost take the audience by the hand and invite them to kind of come along and feel something, which it sounds like to you does not work as well. But it is different.
And I hope this comparison is somewhat elucidating. But it's like if a Tyler Perry show actually reflected modern Black culture, like if "House Of Payne" or one of those shows actually took place in the realm of contemporary Blackness instead of leaning on tropes and jokes about taking off your belt every time a kid misbehaves. And I kind of agree with you. Like, I don't love all of spoken word. It's kind of hit-or-miss. But I really appreciated those modern elements.
And included in those moderate elements is some of the way that the scenes are shot. Like, Helen Hunt's first scene, where she's having this discussion with Trish, played by Jaylen Barron, it's shot in a way that kind of feels like dancing and almost serves as a visual reflection of their conversation. And it's just so pretty to watch that I kind of got lost in that moment. So I do really kind of appreciate those modern elements.
HARRIS: I love that you described it as Tyler Perry if Tyler Perry had any sort of real feeling to his work. I think that's such an apt description. And I do want to say, like, even though it's not my bag, I do appreciate that they are swinging for it and going for it because it does feel like a very different show. And it feels even very different from the movie. You know, the movie had those elements. And especially, like - one of the final scenes of the movie, there is that moment that we're all waiting for, where Daveed Diggs gets his sort of big - in a musical, when you can no longer speak, you sing. And then when you can no longer sing or dance - and here, he's, like, can no longer speak, so I'm going to rap. And I think it's really, really powerful.
HARRIS: And there are moments, I think, where it really works here. One of my favorite characters, though, who I want to talk about is just the character of Earl...
HARRIS: His background is that he is a tenant of Janelle and her mother. And he is just out of prison for a weed charge. And, of course, weed now is legal in (laughter) California. And so...
HARRIS: ...It kind of touches on the irony of that. And he has to wear in the - a sort of humorous way but also say a really depressing way, he has to wear an ankle monitor that has to be hooked up by, like, an extension cord. So he is chained to this house, basically, with an extension cord. And he brings it everywhere he goes. And there's a scene - he has a plotline in Episode 5 where he basically is trying to get a job. And it really digs into the issues that come from being a felon and trying to get a job and him having to be back home in time for his curfew and all of those things. While he's trying to do good, the system is keeping him back. And...
HARRIS: ...There were some musical elements in that episode that I think just, like, really hit the spot and I think are really beautifully shot and beautifully executed. And he's just a really sympathetic character who is funny and smart. I just think - he to me is the standout in this show. And I hope people check in, if only for that. And he's also an Oakland native as well, so...
HENDERSON: And he wrote Episode 7, which is a lot of fun.
HENDERSON: But it's funny. He's got a big orange extension cord, which I appreciated 'cause that was so super hood...
HOWARD: Yeah (laughter).
HENDERSON: ...Big orange extension cord. He starts out as being kind of - you think he might be the buffoon of the show...
HENDERSON: ...Because a lot of jokes are made early on at his expense, you know? And then it turns out that he's quite intelligent and everything. And it's just fascinating to watch this character kind of develop. Out of all of the characters on the show, I think he has the most interesting arc in terms of unexpected character development.
HOWARD: Yeah. I think that's right. I mean, Jasmine Cephas Jones - she carries herself in a way that you would never think of her as And Peggy from "Hamilton." Like, she's not that, like, side character anymore. She really steps into the leading role as Ashley. But two things really surprise me about the show and about the performances. And one of them is the thing that we're all kind of gathering around as, like, gathering around the flame, and that is Benjamin Earl Turner's performance as Earl. Like, it surprised me how much I loved him by the end. By the end, I am really invested in Earl.
The other thing that really surprised me about the show is how well Helen Hunt kind of fit into this world. This is not "Mad About You." But she is almost this typical progressive Berkeley mom whose kids hung out with mostly or only people of color. She's extremely permissive, unfazed and pretty much didn't miss a beat. That said, of course, her character, in my opinion, like, as - again, as an Oakland native, has some minor inconsistencies, but not so much that I find it bothersome. I think she really fits into this world.
HARRIS: Yeah. She is the sort of hippie mom that...
HARRIS: ...I feel - like you said, in some ways, she could be a caricature. But I think she does play it in a way - and there are layers to that performance that I think are working against her becoming a caricature, which it could have so easily been. And she even said in, like, one interview about the show that she was like, I will do this, but I don't want to be wearing a bad wig that'll make me (laughter) look...
HARRIS: ...Like this is just...
HARRIS: ...A joke. Like, make sure that I, like, fit into this world. And I think they did...
HARRIS: ...A really good job of doing that. Before we go - like, we haven't even talked about Trish, played by Jaylen Barron, really. Because her character arc is also very interesting to me.
HARRIS: She's working at a strip club, but she's also trying to get her own business off the ground. She kind of toes this line between being a feminist, but she's super young and doesn't quite understand, like, what that might entail. But she's very gung-ho and determined, and she doesn't understand how sometimes the way she talks or the way she can or cannot code switch can affect the way in which she goes about doing her business. And I think by - you know, if you keep watching the show, she's also someone who starts off like she could be a buffoon, in a way, and elements of what we all thought Cardi B was when she first came out. It is like, you talk like this, and you are probably really dumb. That is the stereotype that we have with people who typically look like and talk like her.
HARRIS: But she actually has really specific aspirations and is trying to do things her own way and really just get ahead while not compromising who she is. And I really appreciate that arc. And I think she's doing some really interesting work there.
HENDERSON: I think Ashley and Trish - they're kind of two sides of the same coin.
HOWARD: Absolutely. Yeah.
HENDERSON: Ashley looks at Trish and says she's too ratchet, and Trish looks at Ashley and says she's too bougie.
HOWARD: That's right.
HENDERSON: But in actuality, they both have both of those elements.
HENDERSON: And I think they're looking at each other and seeing the one thing about themselves they don't like.
HENDERSON: And that's why there's so much tension between them.
HOWARD: Yeah. No - you know, I think along these exact lines, the show kind of seems to continue in the path that was laid by the movie in kind of wrestling with the blind spots, right? Like, that's why it's called that, "Blindspotting." It's the blind spots of the characters. And this idea that while one thing is seen by some, there's an entire other picture of a person to be seen. Like, there's this entire conversation on race in Episode 6 that resembles a real, ongoing conversation among Black folks about Blackness and acceptance and colorism within the Black community. And I feel like...
HENDERSON: And they're playing dominoes.
HOWARD: Yes, they're playing dominoes while all this is happening and talking about "Meteor Man." Like, this is something that I feel is rarely captured in all of its thoughtfulness and criticism and humor. And I thought that was beautiful as well. And most of these characters have - they seem to have this quality about only being half seen by the other characters in the show. As has been said before, Ashley and Trish and Earl, even, and Sean - they all had to shake these perceptions, or at least embrace all the sides of themselves and all the sides of their counterparts, of the other people on the screen. And I would say that the point of the show in many ways seems to be that, listen. People can be more than one thing. They may or may not be the thing that you see them as. But they are more than just that one thing.
HARRIS: Yeah. That's such a great point. And we want to know what you all think about "Blindspotting." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thank you so much to both of you for being here.
HOWARD: Thank you.
HENDERSON: Thank you.
HARRIS: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you tomorrow, when we'll be talking about "Space Jam: A New Legacy."
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