Dana James (Mallori Johnson), the lead character in Octavia Butler’s Kindred—now an FX series streaming on Hulu—is a lost woman. After she impulsively sells her family’s Brooklyn brownstone, she moves to Los Angeles to pursue TV writing. But her pursuit is limited to taking notes of old reruns of Dynasty rather than sitting down and writing or applying to jobs. When she’s inexplicably yanked back in time to her ancestor’s Maryland tobacco plantation, she quickly spirals, losing more and more of herself in the past, dragging her one-night stand and her family along with her.
It’s difficult to understate the power of Kindred. At a time before any other mainstream stories showed enslaved people as the main characters of their own lives, Kindred was a revolutionary novel that helped pave the way for many Black narratives. It helped usher in a new generation of Black science fiction stories and writers, and the publication of Kindred is largely considered the point at which Butler firmly established herself as not only a speculative writer, but a Black voice within the larger writing community. If anyone could be credited with inventing the Afrofuturism genre, it would be her. But in a post-Kindred world, one where audiences have seen movies explicitly about slavery (such as 12 Years a Slave) and are more familiar with Black horror (from directors like Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele), how do you update the book that invented the genre?
As the series firmly settles into its own version of events, the show honors the understandings of its modern viewership while still remaining true to the thematic roots of the original book. However, its focus on extended moments of character depth means it fails to keep up the momentum. With a compelling premise and performances from every member of the cast that are both measured and deeply considered, Kindred very nearly earns all eight episodes of its first season. However, as the plot creeps along and Dana continues to shift her goals for returning to the past, the story’s tension is reduced to brief interactions that do not harmonize with the core premise.
Dana soon realizes that she’s tossed into the past whenever Rufus Weylin, the young white boy whose father owns the plantation, feels as if he’s going to die. He quickly becomes the focus of Dana’s time travel, and the show’s narrative tension becomes more and more occupied with Rufus. Most other interactions are simply moments of world-building in between interactions that either Dana or her happenstance companion—Kevin (Micah Stock), the waiter-turned-one-night-stand who she accidentally drags into the past with her—have with the young boy, which become fewer and more far between as the show goes on.
Kindred is a show of survival. Being a hero will get you hurt, sold, or killed. As Dana learns these lessons the hard way, they are often at the expense of the enslaved people around her, and rarely is she subject to harm beyond insults and threats. Part of this is because she’s protected by the assumption that Kevin is her white master. Part of this is because the showrunner, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, has decided to withhold some of the brutality that enslaved Black people endured during this time. Jacobs-Jenkins instead establishes the systems of control without resorting to on-screen violence, utilizing incredibly vicious dialogue and barbed gestures to get the point across.
Some of the most stomach-churning moments of systemic and physical violence against Black people occur in front of Kevin. Throughout the show Kevin is continually given the most opportunity for character development, and there are points where Kevin’s story with the white masters of the house is prioritized over Dana’s struggle for survival. This narrative weight feels uneven, especially considering in the book Kevin wasn’t just a fling, he was Dana’s husband, and his support for her was almost entirely guaranteed.
Without this established relationship driving him to protect Dana at all costs, Kevin is constantly judging what he’s willing to risk for the sake of decency in a world that is foreign and cruel to him, where he is supposed to have power but is unable to wield it. The careful deployment of his privilege shows how even “safe” or kind white people could easily and without hesitation slip into a hierarchy of power that prioritizes one kind of person over another. Dana seems to adjust to Black slavery far quicker, and although part of this is due to the life-or-death nature of her acquiescence, the removal of the interiority of the novel makes for a slightly more stunted narrative experience.
Though the plot inches along, moreso during the later episodes, there is a lot of compelling groundwork that effectively paves the way for a second season that promises greatness. The series is laden with the thematic weight of Butler’s work and it approaches the material with a kind of grim determination. It drives home generational trauma, motherhood, independence, family, and systemic abuse with a kind of single-mindedness that works well in films and stage plays but falters when spread across eight episodes. It is a show with ambition and a rich well to draw from, but sometimes stumbles when it comes to creating forward motion for Dana or any of the other characters, who all seem lost within flawed plans and assumptions.
Kindred’s potential outstrips its flawed first season. Despite the slowness of its back half there is still an intense thrum to the series that demands attention. The final 30 minutes are in some ways exceedingly predictable, but they set up a second season that is more than the sum of its first eight episodes. Although as a show, Kindred isn’t quite as revolutionary or as deeply introspective as the original novel, it’s still a series that is demanding of its audience, and expects the viewer to wrestle with what’s being shown on screen. It’s worth the watch, but requires patience and a strong stomach.
Kindred is now streaming on Hulu.
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