In the 2018 comedy-drama Blindspotting, childhood friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal introduced viewers to the lively and complex dynamic of their Bay Area hometown through the complicated friendship between total opposites Colin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal).
The film's open-ended final scenes left room for the story to continue. So when approached by Lionsgate and Starz to expand the film into a Blindspotting series, the creative duo knew that they would have to be intentional in telling a new but relevant story. Rather than building on the men's struggles, Diggs and Casal decided to shine a light on the consequences of their characters' lifestyles on the people they held dearest — the women in their lives. And the filmmakers knew just the woman to boldly lead their exploration into this uncharted territory, passing Jasmine Cephas Jones the torch to expand upon her storyline in the film of newly-single mother Ashley.
"My role of Ashley in the movie was short but very intense," Cephas Jones recently told Refinery29 over the phone. "But Rafael and Diggs called me like three years ago and told me that they'd only make the TV adaptation if I would play Ashley again and lead the show. So I knew that they would write something that would be transformative for me and give me a platform to do my thing."
"Everything just felt right about this project," continued the actress. "I got to be Ashley once more, but it felt new because I was able to have creative control in discovering who she is as a woman."
To say that Cephas Jones' role in Blindspotting has grown would be an understatement; the Starz plot is told almost entirely from her character's perspective. Following the incarceration of her boyfriend and baby-father Miles (Casal), Ashley is forced to navigate life as a single mother to her son Sean (Atticus Woodward). Part of her new normal also includes making nice with Miles' side of the family — including his half-sister Trish (Jaylen Barron) and oddball mother Rainey (Helen Hunt) — as well as scrounging up the coins to keep her household afloat, with every new day delivering a new struggle for Ashley and her tribe.
Holding down the fort is hard work emotionally and physically, and while Ashley does her best to make ends meet, she doesn't always know exactly what her next move is. Sure, she puts on a brave face in front of her loved ones, but our protagonist doesn't have it together; more often than not, Ashley feels like she's floundering at the hands of the system. Her very real hangups about her situation flare up at random times, sometimes through heightened verse and well-timed breaking of the fourth wall, but even Ashley's most turbulent moments stem from the all-consuming feeling of losing control of her own life.
"We're trying to show the perspective of these strong women who are the glue for their families while also emphasizing the importance of giving them room to not be strong."
Jasmine Cephas Jones
"People don't talk enough about how prison affects the people inside and out of the system," said Cephas-Jones on the phone. "Especially the women — the Black women who have to hold their families together. We're trying to show the perspective of these strong women who are the glue for their families while also emphasizing the importance of giving them room to not be strong. Even the strongest person can't hold everything in; you have to let the negative emotions out so you can be your best self."
Digging deeper into the nuanced story of a Black woman left behind by the carceral state while also providing an elevated and darkly comedic sociopolitical commentary required a lot from Cephas Jones. Not only did she commit to the emotional heavy lifting required of playing Ashley, but she did it in the midst of a national movement towards abolition during a season of high profile police brutality. During that time, filming a show like this could very well have triggered an avalanche of lasting stress and personal trauma. Fortunately, Cephas Jones was more than up to the task, armed with an iron will and a passion for bringing about healing through the work, no matter how taxing her scenes were.
"As an artist, it's kind of our job to reflect the times," explained Cephas Jones, who won an Emmy for a similarly-themed role in Quibi's #FreeRayshawn in 2020. "Sometimes, when you get a job like [Blindspotting] right when all of the worst stuff is happening in the world, it's almost as if you have a duty to fulfill. And when you accept that and take it on, that overall goal helps you push through to the end."
"I think everyone on our set understood that we were telling this story because we're passionate about the issue at hand," she said. "We're doing this so the world can get an understanding and a different perspective about how mass incarceration affects people on both the inside and outside. It's a fire, a fuel underneath you. You're using your art to entertain, but it ultimately also has another purpose."
Although we're only a few episodes into the Starz original series, Blindspotting is already living up to the high standards set by the 2018 film it expands upon, using Cephas Jones' rich character work to propel the story further than both Diggs and Casal initially thought possible. If you're in love with the show now, just keep watching; its leading lady promises that the unique storyline is about to take things to the next level. And with Blindspotting, that could mean tears or laughter — or even a balanced mix of the two.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.