"Blindspotting" is a "truly American story" about living in a country addicted to imprisoning people

"Blindspotting" co-creator/star Rafael Casal went on "Salon Talks" to discuss families of prisoners, gentrification

By D. Watkins
Published July 11, 2021 2:00PM (EDT)
Rafael Casal as Miles in "Blindspotting" (Starz)
Rafael Casal as Miles in "Blindspotting" (Starz)

My uncle Jay went to jail when I was a kid –– and I remember how everybody made a big deal about visiting him, making sure he was okay, constantly talking about his sanity and preparing something good for him to come home to. I think all of this was extremely important, but it was strange how my aunt was just left out of the conversation. Jay went to jail, taking his income with him, and our family had to band together to make sure my aunt and his kids were taken care of while he was away –– and that is the part of the criminal justice system that is too often left out of the conversation.

We create so much language around the people who are incarcerated and don't focus enough on the families trying to piece their lives together. That other side of incarceration is captured beautifully in the new Starz series "Blindspotting." 

"Blindspotting," written and produced by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, follows Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) who, after her longtime partner Miles (Casal) is incarcerated, must move in with Miles' mother (Helen Hunt) and half-sister Trish (Jaylen Barron). The series takes a deep dive into the Oakland family struggling in a society quickly changing through rapid gentrification and offering little to no opportunity to Black and brown people. Casal detailed the importance of using art and his platform to bring awareness to what the families of incarcerated people go through on a recent episode of "Salon Talks."

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Rafael Casal here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about the challenges of making a television show during a global pandemic, the magic that develops when you form a writers room full of poets and his hopes of telling more authentic Bay Area stories.  

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I love "Blindspotting" the movie. I feel like with this show, you guys took it to the next level. How you been holding up?

Been good man. I mean we shot this thing during the pandemic so I think we're all just happy that the release of the show is coinciding with people starting to be outside and get back to their lives again. It feels like it's a part of the celebration of everything opening back up. It's been a labor of love but yeah, It was a tough year making the show. I'm happy that it's done and people can see it.

What were some of the challenges of shooting during the pandemic?

Man, it affects every facet of filmmaking and storytelling. From who's available, how they can be in the right area. We couldn't get indoor shooting permits for the Bay Area for the first three months of production. We had to move all of our exterior to end of the shoot just in hopes that we'd be able to shoot up there. We had to build our sets so that there could be constant airflow and you could take walls off. If somebody sneezed on set, you got to stop for an hour. I have no idea how people make TV normally because I've only ever been a cast member on something but the logistical challenges alone, I mean, you saw people shut down. A lot of shows that didn't even come back. It wasn't even worth it. But we're new hungry filmmakers, and they gave us a shot to make a show so while some other people slept, we were like all right, we'll do it. We'll try it.

And then you're just praying for a few things. One, obviously we don't want to get shut down. But then also every day you're reminded of what a shutdown actually means. It's somebody has COVID, and they're going to have to deal with that and their family. We had staff members who are living with parents that are not necessarily healthy or they have kids or whatever. It really was never lost on us that people were actually risking their lives to come to work. And for us too, I think we then had to make the show extra worth it. We really got to love what we're doing and believe in it to ask people to do that.

Did you guys ever think about making the pandemic a part of that original storyline? Did that conversation come up?

Yeah. I think that was the question for anybody who's making art this year. How do you want to interface with this moment in time? But I think "Blindspotting" in a lot of ways, the world that we built is really about reflection and seeing ourselves from different angles and having a new perspective on the way in which we engage with the world. And the pandemic was happening in real time and we're still trying to figure out who we are in it and have some hindsight on it. And so for us, I think it made it really easy to go, you know what? Let's set this in 2018, six months after the movie so that if we ever get the chance to have the show run a couple of seasons and we want to interface with the pandemic, we have some insight into what that was like and we can make some commentary on it as opposed to just trying to like represent it and chase it accurately while we're still in the midst of it.

And some penitentiaries were letting people out, letting them do it at home. Some were really trying to contain it and pretend as though COVID wasn't running rampant through the prison industrial complex. That was the big thing right? If we were going to do a COVID thing that involved the prison system, we've got to see it all the way out first and see how different states are responding to it because the California Prison System is very specific in how they dealt with it and how much it was spreading and the amount of people that were infected with COVID in the penitentiary. To me, that's a whole season in itself, just dealing with that.

What does the term "Blindspotting" mean to you since the film has graduated into a television series? Has it taken on more of a meaning or a different meaning?

I think it just becomes so pervasive through my life, right? I do think for us, it's a North Star about the way in which we're willing to have certain conversations about things, right? In the movie, it's really about the way people see Collin, right? Some people look at Collin and look at his rap sheet and see a particular kind of person that is worthy of guilt and punishment and other people who see somebody who is trying to survive a corrupt system. And that's true for all the characters. There's a number of different dualities at play. And "Blindspotting" really was to give some language to what does it mean to look at something or someone or a community and go, "Am I framing this in the correct way to afford everyone their greatest level of humanity?"

And I think what that's become for me now since the movie and really working up to the movie and really just our practice as artists, has been to look at everything that way and go all right. Well, I'm so sure that it is this. Am I doing the work to turn this around and look at it another way? And I think when we're making a TV show with a bunch of other writers and a bunch of other characters, we all come in with our preconceived notions of who they are and how they should be, based on the people we know in our lives. And even the show has forced us to look at people in our own lives who we love, who we look at firmly, and think about the complexities of who they are from as many different vantage points as possible to fully communicate their humanity. The movie's only 90 minutes. The first season is four hours. There's more time to live with people. There's more complexity afforded to it.

For our readers and viewers who never got a chance to see the movie, can you give them like a glimpse into the world that they would come into?

What's great is that the show really doesn't require that you have seen the movie, although I think eventually you'll want to go back and see it as like a prequel now, but we really tried to Marvel Universe this thing. It's a different plot, but it's within the same world, right? It's within the same universe. But this film is really about Ashley Rose, who's just creeping up on a middle-class life with her partner Miles and their son Sean.

And on New Year's Eve, Miles is getting yanked out of the house and then dragged off to jail. And it's not entirely clear why. We give some hints. And it's really about her having to move back to a neighborhood she grew up in, into his mom and half sister's house, because that's the easiest place for them to go and re-acclimate herself with a bunch of people that I think in a lot of ways, she was moving away from or felt that she needed to move away from and figure out how to raise their son on her own while dealing with him being a part of this system.

And we really wanted to tell a story that was not about what it's like in prison but what it's like for everybody else affected by the country's prison industrial complex. And it's funny as hell and it's beautiful because we have all this movement and poetic verse. So it does have these abstract art elements to it that I think really set it apart from anything I've ever seen before.

It's like if we can keep the issue on the guilt of the inmate, of the person who is incarcerated, of the human being who is being incarcerated, if we can keep the conversation on whether or not they're deserving of compassion, it's so easy for the pile on to happen. "Well, what did they do?" We love doing that as a country. We did that with George Floyd. "What did he do?" All this assumed guilt, which of course is always like more so on Black and brown bodies than anybody else, but that's the pile on. And I think when we start looking at incarceration and going well, all right, there's 2 million people incarcerated in this country. That's an insane amount of people. The amount of people that affects on the outside, maybe at first glance isn't worthy of like one of those crime documentaries that's like, look at how crazy it is in an Angola prison. But the relatable story, that if there's 2 million incarcerated people in this country, the relatable story is like the 30 people in each one of those people's lives that have had to reconcile with the disappearance of somebody that they love. Guilty or not. And I think that then becomes an unfortunately, a truly American story of what does it mean to be in a country that is so addicted to incarcerating people?

I think of artists often as merchants of empathy. Our job is to create empathy where there seems to be a void of compassion. And there's already so many nonprofits and organizations both locally and nationally that actually already have all the information, already have the plans for how we can deconstruct the prison industrial complex and have it be much more of a restorative justice system as opposed to a punitive justice system. That already exists. What's missing is the compassion and the love and the fire lit under our asses to actually make that shift. I think our job is just that. Just like, look at how it affects people, look at the people that you will grow to love and relate to, that this is affecting. And if that's true, then shouldn't we do something about it? This system, we actually don't need it to be this way. There's all these amazing resources that people can go check out and participate in on a local level to start to move the needle.

The last time I spoke to you, I remember we were talking about how the Bay Area is changing, right? The prices of homes and how difficult it is to live and people being pushed out. And I wanted to ask you, what is the climate like right now? Has it changed for the better any?

It's not. Not at all. Not from what I've seen. I mean, even on the block we were shooting on, man. What was beautiful was like we were shooting in the west and a lot of the people who live on that block would just come out and sit on their porches all day and watch us shoot and so I was talking to folks the whole time we were there and you're just talking about how hard it's been during the pandemic and the pressure that they have for people to come and try to buy their houses and flip them and push them out of the neighborhood. And that gentrification process is brutal. And the pandemic just I think made it even harder because so many people were out of work, that there's even a bigger need for like well, I just need a big chunk of money to sustain and so no, I think if anything, the tension between the new folks and the locals is high.

It's the first time I've ever seen my community feel particularly angry in this way? I can feel the weight of the fury of what's happened to the area and I think that those moments when we can celebrate Bay Area culture and Bay Area history become really important and so there has been a lot of rallying and love around our show in the last few days. I hope that maintains because I also know that cynicism is right there too because of how it's been. But I believe in the Bay and I believe in the resilience of the people there. Especially the local community that has been there for a while and I think they know how to amplify the beautiful parts of what makes the Bay area what it is. And I think our job as a show is just like shine light on that and be like no, this is what the Bay is. You can't make it something else because this is why it's dope. And everybody needs to get on board with preserving these reasons of why it is what it is, not trying to make it something new.

Sometimes when we get pushed into different areas, we are forced to develop new community. And even though going through the process has been ugly, there has been times, especially where I'm from and where I live in Baltimore, we've been pushed out of areas and we've migrated into new pockets and created something even more beautiful and more brand new and something that we can even take more ownership in. Is there a place in the Bay like that? 

There's a lot of that. I don't know if the regional pride has shifted to those areas yet in the same way. But I think it's on the way, right? I think of Stockton and Tracy and Antioch and some of the cities that are a little bit further out, right? I haven't spent a ton of time in Atlanta but when I go out there, we always talk about like well, the Atlanta suburbs spread pretty far out – 30, 40 minutes outside of the city. And there's a lot of transfer of every 10 years or so. All the Black and brown people are in the city and then back to the suburbs and there is this transfer of where everybody congregates. And I think Ben Turner, again, on our staff, he's from Antioch. And a growing population of people from Oakland and from Berkeley and San Leandro and Richmond that are out in Antioch now, are out at Stockton now, are out in Tracy now and there was a new community building out there. Everyone I know who's out that far is still like yeah, but I'm from Oakland or I'm from Berkeley or I'm from Richmond. The pride is still centered in a different city. I do have that optimistic lens on it. Sometimes where I'm like well, but there is also something really beautiful brewing out there and I wonder what will come of that. I wonder what kind of resilience and beauty will come out of the hardship of losing this particular place.

But I think all of that unfortunately does come to the detriment of this idea that like, that's what the Bay Area was. The Bay Area was the first and second great migration from the South to the Port City of Oakland and San Francisco as a safe haven from people trying to leave the South. I think those are the things that a lot of local folks are wrestling with. Is like, but this was going to be that and even now we're getting pushed out of that and going somewhere else and like when do we get to have something that's just like, this is it. This gets to stay.

We're here to support any art and creativity that comes out of that pain because that's what we got to do. What's next for you?

I'm hoping we get a Season 2 man. There's a lot of stuff in Season 1 that we didn't get to do because of time and honestly, inexperience and the pandemic right? This is the first time we'd ever done TV. We learned a lot. I'm like man, I want another crack at it now that I know so much better how to do it. And there's other projects that I'm doing and me and Daveed are doing and all of that but I think the thing that I'm most excited about honestly, is that I know a lot of screenwriters, storytellers back home from where we grew up and "Blindspotting" is not like the Oakland story or the Bay Area story. It can't be. It's just one little tiny story among thousands of stories that that region has to offer.

And I'm really just excited to see the show that comes out. It's like an answer to it or a variant of it. That's a totally different story. And we were doing the Oakland block party for the premiere. And I'm looking out at this crowd of people, a lot of people I know and love, it's like a 1,000 people on the street and I'm like, man. How crazy would it be if in 10 years there was 10 other shows that were totally different from our show. About the same place, totally different. There's so many interesting variations of what the Bay Area is. And the way that I look at New York and I'm like, man, New York has a thousand movies about it. A thousand movies. And even that's not enough. There's even a hell of communities there that don't have s**t.

The Bay Area needs that. We need just like a bunch of movies and shows to just try to articulate what it's like to be from there and I'm literally just sitting like this. We did our little show and I'm like all right, who got next? I can't wait and I want to help whoever that is any way that I can.

Congratulations on everything and I want you to tell everybody when and where they can see the show?

"Blindspotting" is on Sundays at Starz, on the Starz App. If you're outside of the U.S., it's on StarzPlay. And it's every Sunday for the next eight weeks. We're so excited for everybody to watch it so please come tune in.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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