‘Blindspotting’ star on incarceration, gentrification in Oakland

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Sarah Sweeney

Rafael Casal attends the Los Angeles premiere of STARZ's "Blindspotting" season 2 at NeueHouse Hollywood, April 11, 2023. Photo credit: Billy Bennight/AdMedia/Sipa USA.

It took Rafael Casal nearly 10 years to produce “Blindspotting.” He co-wrote and co-starred in the 2018 film with his best friend, Daved Diggs. In it, Casal plays Miles, the short-tempered, reckless friend of Diggs’ character Collin. While the film pays homage to Oakland and explores interracial friendships, it also critiques policing, the prison system, and gentrification. 

Now, five years after the movie’s release, “Blindspotting” is a TV series on Starz. It continues the story of Miles, still played by Casal, as he lands in jail, and his girlfriend is forced to take care of their son without him. Casal writes, directs, and executive produces the show, which is now in its second season. 

In the series, Casal’s character is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison and is trying to put on a good show for his family during his time inside. Meanwhile, his girlfriend and son are trying to navigate life without his presence. The son even brags about Miles being in prison.

“When you're young, street cred is important. You're bragging about how tough or how cool or how down your family is,” Casal tells KCRW. “There's 2 million people in prison. There's 5 million in the prison industrial complex in the country. There's so many kids with family members in prison that it becomes normal for some folks.” 

In one episode, Miles’ family visits and takes part in a weekend cabin visitation, modeled after a real-life program where loved ones are able to stay on-site in an apartment-like facility. 

“It's [about] maintaining someone who's incarcerated in a relationship with their family. So when they come out, they still have strong bonds with their partners and their children. I'm sure the whole point of the program is to not have people come back to prison. The recidivism rate is so high.”

He adds, “I think they're like, well, here's one way that maybe if people stay connected to their loved ones and have physical contact and can hug their kids and kiss their partners, that there's some semblance of normalcy that gives them hope.” 

Words aren’t always enough 

When it comes to the show’s difficult subject matter, ‘Blindspotting’ addresses them directly to the camera, or uses “the inverse,” which includes heightened movements. 

“Movement really comes in when something that is so hard to articulate through words needs to be expressed through the body or through movement, and that's a better medium to get the emotion across.”

In one episode, Casal details how a dance number was used instead of pure conversation.

“We knew if we did that, literally, it'd be a five-hour special on TV, and we still wouldn't get to it all. But if we do it through movement and tell the history, everyone can feel it a bit more without getting caught up on the language, and is that factually accurate, or is that the way I would phrase it? But instead, we just told it [through] the body through our amazing dancers.” 

Discrimination and gentrification

The show also tackles systematic racism and how to talk about it with kids. That includes a scene where Miles’ son uses the N word, and Miles has to explain to him why that word isn’t appropriate. He says writers who are parents worked through the storyline and shared their challenges. 

“Some of this was also coming up in our real lives. … What's the age where this pops up out of kids' mouths, and how do you have that conversation as a parent or as an uncle or whoever? … We were like, well, we got to show the fumble. We also have to show the way in which progressive politics would come out of a parent's mouth if you're from the Bay Area and the way that we were raised.” 

Gentrification and Oakland’s transformation are other themes of the show. Casal says the city he knows and loves has changed immensely over the years. He lives in LA, but often goes back to visit family and friends. As a result, he says the changes are very noticeable.

“I'm not sitting in the boiling water, not noticing it getting hot. I really see the shift. And so there's parts of it that I love. And I'm so excited that certain things have persevered and stayed. … But … the Bay that's in my head is not the Bay that I see when I'm driving around. And I think the biggest thing is I just have to reconcile those two things — the nostalgia from your childhood and the place that it was at and the people that were there. … There's a new thing here now that is also beautiful, but it's fundamentally different.”