Adapted from the acclaimed 2018 film of the same name, Starz’s Blindspotting TV series is currently in the middle of its excellent second season, featuring one of its best and most challenging episodes. Titled “N*ggaz and Jesus,” the third episode of the season puts focus on Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Miles (Rafael Casal), and their son Sean (Atticus Woodward) getting the chance to spend time together, only for the parents to find themselves in need of teacher their son about the n-word, and the historical racial context behind it.
Written by showrunners Casal and Daveed Diggs, it’s an important episode in the way it dials down some of the broader comedy in favor of leaning into the stresses of society and the proper steps for these parental units regarding their curious child. It’s no easy situation for a half-hour series as far as finding the right balance for all the moving pieces involved (Helen Hunt’s Rainey also has a notable subplot involving her relationship with Ashley and religion). Yet, that was precisely what was put further for director Jess Wu Calder.
Calder and her husband, Keith, were producers on the film and remain EPs on the series. They’ve been with Blindspotting for a long time. Speaking with We Live Entertainment, Calder explained that one of the series’ editors played a role in her stepping into the director’s chair for the second season. “He thought that I was a director, and it would be a shame if I never took that step,” Calder stated.
“Either She Directs, Or I Quit!”
The thought was met with a lot of encouragement. “You’re directing!” was the reaction from Casal, according to Calder. Adding to that, Calder was apparently shown a text from Diggs, amusingly stating, “Either she directs, or I quit!” This easily supports the familial themes clearly apparent in front of and behind the camera.
With that in mind, as mentioned above, “If you’re going to direct, we’re going to make sure we give you the hardest episodes ever,” was the accompanying idea for Calder, as it would serve as proof to both herself and the world that she belongs in this position.
The idea would be to set up impossible tasks to conquer, which applies to the dramatic urgency of episode three and the technical challenges of the fourth episode, “By Hook or by Crook.” That fourth episode involves a variety of sets during Halloween, which means carnival grounds, a haunted house attraction, rollercoasters, and a costume party. I won’t spoil it, but there’s even a notable guest star performance referring to a cult favorite fantasy film for 90s kids.
That said, the intimacy of the third episode and the subject matter being dealt with would provide an interesting thematic challenge in how to best accomplish what’s needed cinematically. “I felt so terrified, excited, and supported,” Calder stated, emphasizing the delight of the opportunity, knowing it was a big deal.
The research was certainly key. In addition to having a serious conversation about race, setting the main plot inside the prison meant collecting all the information needed to understand how a weekend visitation works. This includes exploratory scouting tours, which were eye-opening regarding what details really matter to best capture Miles’ state of mind as a prisoner. “It was haunting,” Calder explained concerning a sign detailing how the count alarm worked, essentially rendering sleep useless for the inmates needing to be checked on.
Of course, the “dream-like” family element is trying to be preserved, which was essential to capture. “At the end of the day, you would give up sleeping, and, honestly, [Miles] would rather be staring at his beautiful family sleeping anyway,” Calder adds, explaining the silver lining of the dilemma present within a prison situation challenged by positives and negatives.
Sean’s Teachable Moment
A vital portion of this episode focuses on the journey to have Sean learn about systemic racism and the history of bigotry in America, leading to the creation, use, and evolution of the n-word. In addition to conversations that range from frank to confusing, the eventual choice is made to be open and detailed about this aspect of life and being Black (or of mixed race) in America.
To do this, the show deploys one of its signature elements – a stylized approach to how reality unfolds. In this case, we see shots of Sean reacting to what he is learning, set against a vibrant display of interpretive dance featuring performers dressed up in familiar outfits reflecting the history of slavery, segregation, and police brutality.
For young Atticus Woodward, the first season featured a lot of use of the n-word, which was likely his first time hearing it so frequently. “This conversation did come up, in a way,” Calder noted, reflecting on what’s now taking place in the fictional reality of the series.
“His moms are incredible and were so supportive of what this episode is, and were there every single second of the way,” Calder would add, emphasizing, again, what an open and supportive environment this is when it comes to tackling important subject matter.
With limited time to film with a child, Woodward had to work with a choreographer to get a sense of the dance sequence that would be featured in this episode. “His whole performance is all him just being the intuitive and incredible actor that he is, and all of us trying our best to talk to him about what he was seeing.”
This approach, along with other technical considerations, shows a testament to how gifted he is, with Calder making it clear that so much of how this episode came together relied on putting trust in all involved. In turn, this has led to a successful debut outing for Calder.