Film-to-TV adaptations are a risky business. Fargo is probably the recent benchmark, but it can also go south, as the 1990 Ferris Bueller spin-off featuring Jennifer Aniston, which almost no one has heard of, can attest. At best, a TV series renovates a great movie, knocking its walls through into something smarter, roomier, reminiscent of but also distinct from the original. At worst? It is more of a wrecking-ball situation.
Blindspotting (Starzplay, Amazon Prime) mostly pulls off the transition with verve. The film, written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, was a sleeper hit in 2018. A whipsmart indie dramedy set in Oakland, California, it followed best buddies Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) during the final three days of Collin’s probation. It had an unsettling tone, toggling from jokey to serious, violent to almost-a-musical-without-songs. I don’t know how much I liked it. But it got under my skin.
The TV series, which picks up the action a few months after the film’s end, shifts the perspective from Collin to Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Miles’s longsuffering girlfriend and the mother of their young son, Sean. It is a nice move, although I miss Collin, who is mentioned only briefly in the first episode as having moved to Montana. He was the best character in the film, imbued by Diggs – a fantastic actor and rapper – with unending layers of charisma, trauma and simmering rage.
Episode one opens on New Year’s Eve in Oakland in 2018, the deeply riven city at night illuminated by fireworks, the air thick with sirens and the promise of violence – and police brutality. Miles – still an unbearable, thin-skinned nightmare, bordering on psychopathic – is being arrested for drug possession. The signature Diggs and Casal tone kicks in as Ashley rages at him, then asks as he is led away if he needs any toiletries. “I’m not going to summer camp, baby,” he shouts back. “I’m going to jail!” Their last words to each other are about their online banking password.
The fourth wall is broken as Ashley raps to camera: “You don’t know these people. Stick with me and I’ll guide you.” This made me realise that pretty much every film and TV show I had seen about Oakland and the Bay Area was about white people. In spoken word, Ashley expresses what it takes to be a “tough mum to these bitches”. She acknowledges that “it might just break me, but I was born to sew stitches”.
She visits Miles in jail, which ends with a tender choreographed moment in which every prisoner stands and places an outstretched hand on the glass. She is evicted from their Bay Area apartment, with its mid-century mustard sofa and promise of a better future, and returns to the hood, to live with Miles’s mum. Also resident is his sister, Trish, who is setting up a cooperative strip club. This storyline doesn’t work, leading to some seriously clunky discussions about the politics of sex, idealism and feminism. I wasn’t sure at first about Miles’s mum, Rainey, either: a hippy Oakland local character, played with never-before-seen levels of chill by Helen Hunt. But, by the end of the half hour, as she insisted that Ashley marry Miles in jail with a minister who used to be her son’s preschool cook, Hunt had won me over.
This is a series about class as much as race. What Blindspotting does really well, with neither judgment nor resolution, is explore Ashley’s existential crisis. Not just the gains from escaping the hood, but what might be lost. “You still working at that little plantation hotel, responding to that little white-privilege bell?” Trish asks her. “It’s the Alcatraz,” Ashley quietly replies, “and I’m the concierge.”
Like the film, the series is infused with early Spike Lee energy, urgency and style. It veers from gags about the wounds opened up by gentrification – “We gotta get out of here before the white capoeiraists start singing slave songs!” is a personal favourite – to serious social commentary. This flitting about is Blindspotting’s charm – and its weakness. Sometimes, the writing can edge too close to trivialising, even glamorising, the issues, but when it works it sizzles. In one scene, Ashley and her son watch a sideshow (Oakland slang for black men performing stunts in their cars) to a blistering soundtrack of Mac Dre’s Thizzle Dance.
The music video-esque action slows down to a jazz trumpet refrain, the cars lurch round and round and Ashley watches it all unfold in slow-motion with an inscrutable expression. Everything is said, without words.