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Review: 'Kindred' Is Not The Octavia E. Butler Adaptation Worth Waiting For

By Brian Richards | TV | December 29, 2022 |

By Brian Richards | TV | December 29, 2022 |


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SO WHAT SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT THIS SERIES BEFORE READING YOUR REVIEW?: Kindred is a science-fiction novel that was published in 1979. It was written by the late, great Octavia E. Butler, who wrote numerous sci-fi novels that inspired many other Black writers, helped to inspire the concept of Afrofuturism, and gave Black fans of sci-fi the worthwhile representation they had been looking for in the genre. It is about a young Black woman who finds herself repeatedly transported from her home in the year 1976 to a Maryland slave plantation in the year 1815, and her attempts to find out why this is happening, and how to make it stop.

There will be spoilers in this review of Kindred, so you should know that before going any further.

WHAT IS THIS SERIES ABOUT?: Dana James (Mallori Johnson) is an up-and-coming writer who sells her late grandmother’s brownstone in Brooklyn and uses the money to buy a home in Los Angeles so that she can pursue a career in writing for television. After meeting her aunt Denise (Eisa Davis) and Denise’s husband, Alan (Charles Parnell), at a restaurant so she can break the news to them (which they don’t respond to very enthusiastically), she strikes up a relationship with their waiter, a white man named Kevin (Micah Stock), who offers her a ride home when her phone battery dies. The two soon end up sleeping together. Things become awkward between Kevin and Dana after an unfortunate choice of words on Kevin’s part, and as Kevin is preparing to leave at Dana’s request, she suddenly disappears from her home in the year 2016 and arrives at a plantation in Maryland in the year 1815.

DISAPPEARS? HOW?: She disappears in the blink of an eye, as Kevin is putting on his clothes with his back to her and attempting to apologize. When he turns around to face Dana, she is nowhere to be found, as she has exited the premises without a word or a sound. (I was about to compare Dana’s disappearing act to that of Nightcrawler’s teleportation abilities, except they make a sound whenever he uses them, hence why “BAMF!” continues to remain such popular onomatopoeia.)

Dana soon learns that the plantation she keeps arriving at belongs to the Weylin family: Tom (Ryan Kwanten), the patriarch who rules over his family and his slaves with an iron hand; Margaret (Gayle Rankin), Tom’s wife, who wants both attention and affection from her family, and receives neither; and their young son, Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan), who has a tendency to start trouble in order to get his way, and because he feels ignored and neglected. She also learns several things upon her arrival in the past:

Whenever she’s transported there, Rufus is in a life-threatening situation that places him in jeopardy, and it’s up to Dana to look after him and come to his rescue, especially when she realizes that he might be an ancestor and that she must ensure Rufus’ survival. The only way that Dana can return to the present is if she herself is placed in a life-threatening situation. The most shocking discovery of all: Dana’s mother, Olivia (Sheria Irving), who was believed to have been killed in a car accident with Dana’s father when Dana was a young girl, is actually alive and has been living on the plantation for years after disappearing from the present (and whose very disappearance resulted in the accident that killed her husband.)

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WOW! IT’S VERY EASY TO SEE WHY THIS BOOK WAS SO INFLUENTIAL, AND HELD IN SUCH HIGH REGARD: Oh, indeed. Kindred is considered to be one of Butler’s best and most popular works. So when it was announced that there would be a live-action adaptation of the novel and that it would be a miniseries airing on FX, a.k.a. Hulu, a.k.a. FX on Hulu, expectations were high.

ALL RIGHT. SO WHAT DID YOU THINK? WHAT’S THE VERDICT?: (groans for several minutes like Tina Belcher)

OH. THAT’S NOT A GOOD SIGN. (grabs a nearby bottle, pours a large glass of absinthe)

THAT…IS ALSO NOT A GOOD SIGN. AND SHOULD YOU EVEN BE DRINKING THAT?: Yeah, these are probably not good signs. I grew up drinking Hawaiian Punch, which never got cold no matter how long it was kept in the fridge, so…I think I can manage this.

LET’S GO AHEAD AND START WITH THE GOOD. WHAT ARE THE THINGS ABOUT KINDRED THAT WORKED?: Mallori Johnson’s performance as Dana; Micah Stock’s performance as Kevin; and the cinematography and production design, which does a great job of immersing the audience into 1800s Maryland.

AND WHAT ARE THE THINGS ABOUT KINDRED THAT DON’T WORK?: To start … one of the biggest changes from the novel is that instead of Dana and Kevin being a married couple who have been together for years, Dana and Kevin instead meet for the very first time in this miniseries. We get to see them meet and travel through time together while getting to know each other. It’s implausible enough that a Black woman like Dana would even accept a ride home from a white man like Kevin who she has literally just met. But expecting viewers to swallow the idea that Kevin is willing to stick around and continue dealing with a Black woman who is traveling back in time to the days of slavery, and that he is willing to do it more than once when he barely even knows her? The change is an absolute headscratcher.

Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) is a talented actor, but his performance as Tom comes across more like cosplay. Carlo and Hermione (Louis Cancelmi, Brooke Bloom), the nosy white neighbors, come across more like characters from a sketch on Chappelle’s Show. The in medias res beginning of the pilot also wasn’t necessary. There is little to no sense of tension, urgency, or momentum throughout the series. When the “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta (or any episode of Atlanta, really) does a much better job than a Kindred adaptation of creating tension and making me fear for the safety of the main character because of where they are and what they’re up to, that’s a sign of you needing to go back to the drawing board. I don’t need to see any explicit displays of how horrible slavery is, but outside of showing what happens to both Luke and Celeste after the latter gives birth to their child, not enough is shown or done to hammer home how unpleasant the environment or circumstances are, for Dana and for the rest of the slaves.

That said, I did appreciate the moment that Dana noticed how exhausted the pregnant Celeste was from working in the fields and suggested to her that she should convince Tom to take it a little easier on her. Celeste’s response (though not in these exact words): “You do know that I’m a slave, right? And slave owners like Tom don’t care about taking it easy on us, even when we’re with child?!”

Dana putting together a survival bag filled with food, medicine, and other supplies to accompany her for the next time she ends up in the past is a smart move. Dana not bringing any weapons to defend herself if and when necessary is not.

I NEED TO KNOW THIS SINCE I’M NOT FAMILIAR WITH KINDRED AS A WHOLE. THIS STORY IS ACTUALLY SET IN THE 1800s DURING SLAVERY, RIGHT? IT’S NOT TAKING PLACE IN SOME WEIRD REENACTMENT PARK IN THE 21ST CENTURY THAT LETS WHITE PEOPLE LIVE OUT THEIR FANTASIES OF OWNING SLAVES, AND WHERE BLACK PEOPLE ARE KIDNAPPED AND FORCED TO BE SLAVES?: I can assure you that Kindred actually does take place in 1800s Maryland, and doesn’t involve any of … what you just described.

ARE THERE ANY OTHER MAJOR CHANGES FROM THE NOVEL?: Dana’s mother was never a character in Butler’s novel, so her being alive and also present in 1800s Maryland alongside her daughter is most definitely a major change from the source material. Both Dana and Kevin never inform Rufus about the two of them being a couple, or that they are actually from the 21st century, which Rufus agrees to keep a secret in the novel when he is told about this. And the novel begins with Dana waking up in a hospital with her arm having been amputated, and Kevin accused by the police of inflicting this on her, whereas this series begins with Dana waking up in her home, with whip lashes on her back, and calling out for Kevin, who isn’t present. She tends to her injuries, and does some research on her laptop as the police knock on her door (with several neighbors forming a crowd outside her house) and demand to be let inside. After Rufus gets sick from consuming alcohol during a father-son getaway with Tom, Margaret decides that she has had enough, and decides to leave Tom for good as she takes Rufus with her to Baltimore so she can have BIG FUN!!!! with The Wretched. And when Dana is whipped across her back by Tom for not only being caught reading, but for actually offering to teach him how to read, Olivia attacks Tom before shielding Dana’s body with her own. Which results in the two women disappearing right before Tom’s eyes, with Dana arriving back home in 2016 California, and Olivia arriving in 2016 New York City, which is where she first disappeared from before arriving in the past. She is found offscreen by the police, who contact Alan, and who then calls Denise, and informs her that Olivia is alive and has been found.

And that, along with Kevin being left in 1800s Maryland without Dana and without any knowledge on how to get back home to the present, is how the season ends.

DOES THIS LIMITED SERIES COVER THE ENTIRE NOVEL?: Much to my surprise, it doesn’t. (Seriously, when I watched the season finale, and the final scene ended and cut to black, my immediate response was, “Wait…that’s it?!?!” And that was before I discovered that Kindred was intended to air for longer than one season.) According to Kindred showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, this season is only covering the first half of the novel, whereas the second season (if the series is renewed and gets a second season) will supposedly cover additional material in the novel. Judging from this interview with Esquire, it seems like Jacobs-Jenkins has at least four seasons in mind for adapting Kindred. Which doesn’t make me want to set off any enthusiastic reggae air-horns when reading that.

KINDRED THE NOVEL TAKES PLACE IN THE YEAR 1976. WHY DOES THIS SERIES TAKE PLACE IN 2016 INSTEAD OF 2021, OR IN 2022?:

From this New York Times interview with Jacobs-Jenkins, which should answer your question:

Speaking of time passages, her novel was set in 1976 to coincide with the bicentennial year of the Declaration of Independence. Why did you set the series in 2016?

Along the way, I became very friendly with Merrilee Heifetz, Butler’s literary executor and her lifelong agent. One of the things she said to me was, “Octavia would’ve wanted you to make this for now.” So I took that to heart. I think 2016 was that last gasp of naïveté about how we had processed the legacies of this racial regime that the country’s founded on. Do you remember the day after Obama was elected, suddenly, there was a discussion of a phrase called post-race? I remember asking, “What is that?” I also think because people did not see the results of the 2016 [presidential] election coming, we suddenly felt like we were backsliding as a country. “Kindred” was the ultimate metaphor for that, too.

TO SUM IT ALL UP: I’m not happy that this adaptation of Kindred didn’t live up to my expectations, especially considering that the novel was my own introduction to Butler and her groundbreaking work. Still, it left a lot to be desired. The idea of Kindred being streeeetched out into a series for four or five seasons doesn’t fill me with anticipation or excitement. Instead, it makes me wish that it had been made into an actual miniseries with an actual endpoint or even a movie (despite the many proclamations that kindred just wouldn’t work as a movie), so that it doesn’t feel like it’s just coasting on its way to the finish line. It doesn’t do enough to make me care about Dana or Kevin.

To the show’s credit, there are several Black women behind the camera (such as Zola director Janicza Bravo) and in the writers’ room (Joy Kecken, Zenzele Price), but I couldn’t help but wonder what this version of Kindred would be like if it had a Black woman as showrunner instead of a Black man like Jacobs-Jenkins. Would the quality of the writing be any different, and would it do a better and more compelling job of making us care more about Dana and what she is experiencing? Jacobs-Jenkins has said that if Octavia E. Butler were alive today, she would encourage him and the writing staff to tell the story for now, and to whatever changes to her novel that they feel are necessary to adapt it. This is the approach that should be taken by any director or showrunner when adapting a previous work. The problem with watching Kindred is that it never really grabbed my interest, and only made me want to go back to reading the novel that was being adapted in the first place. And as much as I appreciate Octavia and her work, they both deserve so much better than that.

All eight episodes of Kindred are now streaming on Hulu.