When Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s Blindspotting directed by Carlos López Estrada debuted at Sundance in 2018 it was immediately buzzy with its unique storytelling and its spotlight on the cultural richness of Oakland as well as issues that impact the entire country. It hit theaters in July of the same year and — to no surprise — was a hit.
The dramedy written and starring Diggs and Casal put a hyper-realistic lens on the often misrepresented Bay Area city, exploring the treatment of Black people by police, identity, home, family and, of course, gentrification. The Starz series expands the Blindspotting-iverse with a new series that debuted on June 13 but it’s the ladies that are front and center — and Jasmine Cephas Jones is leading the charge.
Jones appeared in the feature, playing Ashley, Miles’ (Casal) partner of 12 years. Still taking place in Oakland, the two reprise their roles in the series and in the beginning of the pilot we see Miles getting arrested on New Year’s Eve. As a result, Ashley and their young son Sean (Atticus Woodward) are forced to move in with Miles’ progressive and free-spirited mother Rainey (Oscar winner Helen Hunt) and his half sister Trish (a very talented Jaylen Barron), his quick-witted and hella ambitious influencer half-sister. Upon moving in, she is thrown into a new chaotic phase of life where she must navigate the humor and pain of an existential crisis.
Jones is probably best known for her role as Peggy and the soulfully scandalous Maria Reynolds in the original Broadway production of Hamilton. Like many cast members of the cast, Jones’ career has flourished and she dominates in Blindspotting in a demanding role that tackles hyper-relevant social issues set to the tune of surrealism, spoken word and dance. It’s definitely something we haven’t seen before.
Jones is an East Coast gal. She’s from Brooklyn so one of the main things she had to do was transform into an Oakland native. And that includes getting used to Oakland vernacular — something that is very specific.
“It’s so funny, because I’m from Brooklyn and I say ‘mad’ all the time…like ‘That’s mad funny’ or ‘That’s mad cool’ — I had to keep correcting myself and say ‘hella’,” Jones told Diaspora about playing Bay Area native Ashley. “You can’t say ‘mad’. You have to say ‘hella’… It was such a new thing for me to really get used to (laughs).“
With her Bay Area vocabulary set, Jones said she absolutely adores Oakland. “The people have so much pride for their culture,” she said. “There’s so much history there…It’s literally a place of art. ”
She continued, “They’re so passionate about their community and telling stories through their community. They’re a bit of the underdog. There’s not so many stories or TV shows or movies about Oakland.”
With Diggs and Casal being from Oakland, there is an authenticity that is achieved from the jump that only Bay Area natives can accomplish. They know the city, the people, the vibes and the nuances that make Blindspotting as real as possible. On top of that, the pair add their unique sense of prose and choreography to the mix to make the series very special. “It is such a Bay Area show, because all of that is in there. Also, having Rafa (Casal) and Daveed on your shoulders making sure you’re Bay as hell and there’s no New York in there also helped as well,” Jones added. “But I love Oakland so much and I truly feel at home when I am there. It’s such an amazing place.”
Since the film, Jones said that the character of Ashley has been sitting in her brain for the longest time. After seeing every draft of the script for the series, she was excited to see how she could sculpt the character and how she wanted to play here compared to when we were first introduced to her in 2018.
Jones has a really good working relationship with Casal and Diggs so they know her as a performer and what she is capable of — even if she didn’t believe it herself. “That’s what you want as an artist,” she said. “You want people to give you material and people believe in you, even when you don’t even believe in yourself… and understand your potential as an artist. I really, really got to do that in the show I really think when we wrapped I became a better artist.”
There’s a groundedness with Ashley that Jones wanted to keep that is present in the first episode as well as the second which features [SPOILER ALERT] a moment when she is destroying a room in the fancy hotel in which she works. This happens after the husband from the white rich, privileged white couple from said room solicits her for sex and then the wife pulls some Karen-esque “I need to s to a manager” bullshit. While wielding a tennis racket and making waste of the room, she is reciting a spoken word piece that is quite powerful and speaks volumes beyond what we see on screen.
When she read the pages of the script, Jones saw that Ashley breaks down that fourth wall and drops some serious bars that are rich with words about how women of color are treated. After reading, Jones threw the pages on the ground and said “Oh, my God. That’s the dopest thing I ever seen.”
“She gets to fucking take that anger out in a way that so many times we want to do that but we can’t,” she said. “I just think it’s so bad-ass and I just think it’s such a creative way to express this emotion. I think the way Ashley gets to express what she’s feeling in this show through verse is just so smart and so refreshing.”
Now let’s back up and talk about exactly how this pivotal scene is wildly relevant to the things that people of color and those in the margins — specifically women of color experience. Oftentimes, in certain, white-dominated spaces, “the othered” can never express their rage because of the consequences of being fired, blackballed, ridiculed or humiliated.
However, when a white, hetero cisgendeder male throws a tantrum, expresses rage or exhibits toxic behavior in any way, society tends to not even bat an eyelash or worst — they get praised — just look at the 45th “president” of the United States. In Hollywood, this issue is a major problem. The list of white men behaving badly include David O. Russell, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen as well as late filmmaking “icons” like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick who were accused of unsavory behavior on set. Those names are barely the tip of the iceberg. All are still celebrated and revered despite their accusations.
With the character of Ashley, Jones points out we see her holding the rage in. Jones said that there have been many times that she has had to do that — and she isn’t the only one. She mentions her sister and all the women who work in corporate America that have had to bite their tongue and not curse someone out for mistreating or disrespecting them at work. “That scene is for us,” Jones admits.
The scene fully utilizes Jones’ talent as a stage performer, incorporating the choreography of demolishing a hotel room and spitting verses while doing so — something that parallels her time doing eight shows a week for the pop culture juggernaut known as the Broadway musical Hamilton.
During her two years on the Hamilton cast, every day was a new adventure. She always thought that the scope and scale of the musical couldn’t get any bigger but then Beyonce would come backstage to congratulate them and then Prince would invite them to a party. Then there was the time when the cast was invited by Barack Obama to perform at the White House… no big deal.
“You’re just trying to take in every single moment and really understand what you’re doing, and how you’re impacting people and the world through your art,” she said of her Hamilton experience. “I got to take a few years away from it and when it finally came out on Disney+, I got to have these conversations and go through all the memories again. It was like, ‘Wow. We did something so incredible.'”
Jones is now going through something similar with Blindspotting. The series gives a fresh take on storytelling with its prose, choreography and just general vibe. It is destined to garner some copycats. She points out that this is a long time coming — specifically the inclusivity with the talent in front of the screen and behind the scenes writing and telling the stories. “We need more of that,” she said.
“Blindspotting is about the word — it’s when there’s two different sides of something…or there’s two different images, and you’re only seeing one perspective of something,” Jones explains. “You have a blind spot. I think this movie opened up so many perspectives and helped people understand that there’s more sides to one story, and how impactful that is.”
Through its art, Blindspotting addresses certain issues and if you are one-sided about issues, the series can give more understanding from a different point of view. With the film specifically, we get more perspective of what Diggs’ character Collin was going through: his PTSD and trauma that of seeing an unarmed black man getting shot by a white cop. This is a scene that we have all seen on our phones — especially in the past year.
“What I took away from the film was a little bit of hope and faith that, through explaining it through this kind of heightened piece of art, that people hopefully will understand and get another perspective,” she said.
The TV series continues this trend for Jones as it aligns perfectly with the current social landscape. In fact, Jones points out there were many of stories before Blindspotting came out that told these narratives largely ignored by the dominant culture.
“Child, we’ve been telling these stories for years,” laughs Jones, citing movies like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and every single Stevie Wonder album. “We’ve been talking about this. I think there is kind of a ‘woke’ period that people are going through now — especially through the pandemic, because there was no distractions… People really had to look at themselves in the mirror and really have to face this.”
She continued, “I think it’s just continuing to tell these stories until we see some type of change. I think it is our duty as artists to tell the sign of the times and to speak about what we’re passionate about. Right now, this is what we’re passionate about. We’ve always been passionate about it. This isn’t a new thing. People just got their cameras now. People just got phones where they can get something instantly. But this is not new. It just so happens that everybody else is now starting to get aware… but we’ve been aware.”