Like the city it laments and loves, the 2018 spoken-word musical “Blindspotting” isn’t reducible to just one thing. Written by and starring Bay Area natives Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”) and Rafael Casal, who play best friends with contrasting approaches to the breakneck gentrification of their hometown of Oakland, Calif., the formally and thematically ambitious film showcased fresh talent (especially those of newcomer Casal and first-time director Carlos López Estrada) while tackling issues of police violence, class resentment and toxic masculinity. If it felt a bit overstuffed for a 95-minute feature, well, that mostly felt like a positive: Better to have too much to say than too little.
But even in these sequel and reboot-obsessed times, “Blindspotting” isn’t the most intuitive pick for a TV adaptation, with a box-office gross of just $5 million. Thankfully, Starz recognized that there was more than enough material for an eight-part season, which debuts Sunday. Casal reprises his role as the streets-raised, gold-grilled Miles, but this time he aims the spotlight on his co-star Jasmine Cephas Jones, another “Hamilton” alum and an Emmy winner for Quibi’s “#FreeRayshawn.”
Overseen by Casal, the series is less a remix than an inspired riff on its source material, with a decidedly female-centric perspective on gentrification, the justice system and the hardships of raising a family amid crisis and trauma. Spoken word and spare but evocative dance sequences amplify the characters’ emotions, rendering the show yet another of Starz’s hidden gems about artistically vibrant communities of color under siege. (Also see: the strip-club noir “P-Valley” and the deliciously thorny gentrification drama “Vida.”)
Set shortly after the events of the movie, “Blindspotting” the show opens with Miles’s arrest and eventual imprisonment for MDMA possession. The abrupt loss of his income means that his live-in girlfriend, Ashley (Cephas Jones), and their 6-year-old son, Sean (Atticus Woodward), are forced to move in with Miles’s earthy mama, Rainey (Helen Hunt). But the pot-smoking, masturbation-encouraging elder has even her progressive buttons pushed by her 20-something daughter Trish (Jaylen Barron, ably taking over from Casal as the production’s live wire), who’s living at home until she can figure out how to make her dream of a co-op strip club — owned and run by the dancers — a reality.
That’s the exhausted matriarchy in Rainey’s classic Victorian: a two-toned dollhouse with stained-glass windows and funky wallpaper, held up by dark, chipped wood and scratched-up floors. Next door in their West Oakland neighborhood — a traditionally Black district undergoing gentrification at a ferocious pace — is a squat, tan bungalow, where Ashley’s childhood friend, Janelle (Candace Nicholas-Lippman), has recently moved back in with her mother, Nancy (Margo Hall), and her recent-parolee tenant, Earl (a quietly charismatic Benjamin Earl Turner).
One of the driving forces of “Blindspotting” the film was the sense of dislocation you can feel in a place you’ve lived all your life. That feeling carries through — with new valences — in the adaptation. Ashley, in fact, refuses to let herself get too comfortable in Rainey’s home, opting to sleep on the couch instead of with her son in Miles’s room. After a violence-filled childhood, she’s figured out how to put others at ease, and doing so professionally as the concierge at a fancy hotel bought her a nicer life, at least for a while. But as Trish is happy to remind her — always in the form of a jab — Ashley doesn’t quite know how to fit in the neighborhood she grew up in anymore. Her young son might belong even less.
Unlike many other film-to-TV adaptations, “Blindspotting” leans heavily on its episodic structure, lending each chapter a distinct shape and vibe. Ping-ponging between the beach and prison, bookstores and taco trucks and local car-stunt exhibitions (known as “sideshows”), the series is the rare well-rounded portrait of contemporary Oakland. Even more rewarding are the layers of history between the characters that the season gradually uncovers, especially between Ashley and Rainey, whose lives have intersected for more than a decade. The show’s writers — Diggs among them — delight in rapid-fire verbal play while conveying the struggles of parolees like Earl and parsing out the socioeconomic differences among the Black characters without ever falling into didacticism.
Pilot director Seith Mann’s camera isn’t as fluid or inventive as López Estrada’s, and the show lacks the pulse-quickening urgency of the film. Still, it’s as worthy a reimagining as it gets, particularly in the series’ visual flights of fancy. A shroom trip, for instance, poignantly conjures Ashley’s fears of her biracial son getting caught up in a system she thought she had outrun. In a later episode, when she finally decides it’s time to tell Sean where his dad’s been all along, she’s accompanied by a small dance troupe of jittery prisoners in her home-not-home as she tries her damnedest to make sense of, and find a kind of peace with, the ineradicable presence of the prison-industrial complex in her little boy’s bedroom.
Blindspotting (eight episodes) premieres Sunday, June 13 at 9 p.m. on Starz.