When 26-year-old writer Dana (Mallori Johnson) matches with Kevin (Micah Stock) on a dating app, the groggy-voiced white waiter who’d served her a few hours earlier at an awkward family dinner, Dana seems cautiously intrigued. He was cute enough, like a big bashful bear. But seconds after she swipes right, she is subject to an alarming yet predictable note about the kinds of rides that Kevin knows how to give. She shuts off her phone and turns in for the night, only to slip into an even more nightmarish realm than online dating.
Now she’s on a Baltimore slave plantation in the early 1800s. A ginger-haired baby is lying on his tummy in his crib and at risk of suffocation. Dana saves him, then comes face to face with a couple of women holding candles who aren’t sure what to make of this Black woman. Is Dana, an aspiring television writer who just moved from Brooklyn to Silver Lake, an enslaved woman? Is she a ghost?
Kevin turns out to be a keeper, more romantic than his initial correspondence would suggest. He’s a musician, and a reliable and caring escort to Dana’s subsequent travels to the antebellum south in Kindred, the new FX on Hulu series based on Octavia E Butler’s 1979 classic that married science fiction and contemporary romance, and interrogated the legacy of slavery, and interracial relationships. Presenting themselves as travelers, with Dana the property of Kevin, the duo spends time in their new realm witnessing the horrors of slavery and helping the residents of the plantation – enslaved and slaveholders alike.
Butler was a time traveler in her own way, a MacArthur “genius” whose work presaged the climate crisis and the racial reckoning of recent years. A leader of the Afrofuturism movement, which fused science fiction and racial justice, she turned out books that would gain in relevance and renown in the decades that followed her death from a stroke at age 58 in 2006. Parable of the Sower, her 1993 novel about a dystopian future marked by catastrophic droughts and class wars, didn’t light up the bestseller list until the pandemic, when it was belatedly all the rage. Not surprisingly, a slew of Butler adaptations are in the works, including ones by Issa Rae, JJ Abrams and Ava DuVernay. Kindred, brought to us by showrunner and star playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and The Americans executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, revisits Butler’s story about a modern young woman who must figure out why she keeps slipping back in time.
Though Kindred was set in the 1970s, the creators moved the contemporary strand of the story to present day, which makes for a smoother watching experience. Though her original iteration was a literary writer publishing stories in obscure magazines, Dana is now hoping to break into a Hollywood writers room. Her favorite show is Dynasty, the extraordinarily cheesy 80s soap opera – a clever detail for the new team to drop on. The adaptation of Kindred draws from the soapy tradition, with long pauses and sound effects that are meant to indicate Highly Charged Moment. While the novel is a fever dream that comes in at under 275 pages, the first season consists of eight hour-long episodes, some of which feel sharper than others.
Butler’s dreamy, free-associative style would have lent itself to a more concise form of storytelling. Plotlines have been added and characters have been beefed up, presumably to flesh out the scripts and set up for a new season (the finale ends on a cliffhanger, practically begging for a renewal from the network). In Jacobs-Jenkins’s reinterpretation, orphan Dana now has a mother, as well as two nosy neighbors. Hermione (Brooke Bloom) and Carlo (Louis Cancelmi) are a Karen and a Mr Karen who find life’s meaning in a Nextdoor-like app. The scenes of the couple lifting kettle balls while gossiping about the Black girl who has moved into the neighborhood feel tonally disjointed, and one wonders if their inclusion was a workaround to shooting in a pandemic when bringing more than two actors together for ancillary present-day scenes was too a heavy lift.
Some of the new additions impart welcome dollops of humor but the adaptation falls short when it comes to tapping into the trancelike effect of Butler’s prose. Her book was rife with unforgettably specific details about life as an enslaved person – the master who cuts off a woman’s fingers when he finds her writing, the fly-riddled table scraps for breakfast – but her words also captured a deeper sense of haunting and unease.
The greatest thing the show has going for it is Johnson’s performance. The actor, who was cast for the role while still enrolled at Juilliard, anchors the series with stunning maturity and delicacy. She is soft of voice and and strong as steel, and her presence calls to mind Butler’s prose, sharp-shooting yet always beautifully in flight.
Kindred is now available on Hulu in the US and in the UK and Australia at a later date