So I finally saw Kindred. And I have thoughts.
When I first heard that FX was planning an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, I was all kinds of excited. I read the book many, many, moons ago. But I’d already gotten a great adaptation through John Jennings’s 2017 graphic novel. So this seemed like the next logical step, and a way to bring Butler’s work to many fresh eyes. We really are living in a golden age of SFF genre television, and I am fully here for it.
Warning. What’s ahead is Spoiler-ish.
For anyone unfamiliar with Kindred–the 1979 novel by Octavia Butler follows protagonist Dana, a Black woman living in 1976 California who experiences several episodes where she is mysteriously pulled back in time to an 1800s Maryland slave plantation. There, Dana encounters her own past in descendants both enslaved and free, black and white, forcing her to make terrible choices and painful sacrifices to assure her own existence.
That’s the best I can get with giving away spoilers but not the entire plot. Kindred is considered one of the “greats” in 1970s speculative fiction, and certainly a classic in Black genre fiction–drawing on slave narratives to tell a story both horrific and all too real. So upon learning that it would be adapted to television there was lots of eager excitement.
Not everyone was so certain.
A Tepid Anticipation
First, there was the “Not Another Slave Movie” caucus. These are folk who believe there are “too many” slave movies as is, And any film that fits into that genre is greeted with an eye roll and a “I’m tired.” However, that “too many” is doing a lot of work. The reality is, movies with slavery as a central theme remain rare. Until 2013, modern Hollywood threw up a major slavery movie once in a blue moon (Glory 1989, Amistad 1995, Django 2012). Big network television discovered then abruptly abandoned slavery as a central topic in the late 1970s (Roots, A Woman Called Moses)–returning only sporadically as in the 1990s miniseries Queen. That changed in 2013 with 12 Years a Slave. For the first time, a major film about slavery followed only one year after the last. But not without some effort by actor Brad Pitt’s small production company Plan B and the Afro-British director Steve McQueen. Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s fantasy western Django, the biopic based on the narrative of Solomon Northrup (a free Black man sold into slavery) was under-funded and only originally slated for release in a few theaters, until a savvy public pressure campaign mounted on social media forced greater distribution. It did better than anyone expected–pulling in 9 times its cost, nabbing big Oscar wins, and gifting unto the world the wonder that is Lupita Nyong’o. Let the congregation say, Amen.
Since 2013, there have been more major films with slavery as a focus: Belle (2013), Birth of a Nation (2016), Harriet (2019), Emancipation (2022). Network television also saw a brief return to slavery, with a remake of Roots in 2016, and a short-lived miniseries Underground (2016-2017). But contrary to the “Not Another Slave Movie” caucus, the reasons for this aren’t some shadowy cabal of Hollywood green lighters eager to back slavery films. That doesn’t exist. As a whole, the industry remains skittish on films delving into America’s original sin. Every film on slavery you see on the big screen has been a fight. Took the actress/dancer Debbie Reynolds 20 years of struggle to get Amistad made. Independent director Haile Gerima had to create Sankofa on credit cards and bartered favors, and still couldn’t secure any distribution. Rather, what we’re seeing today likely owes to a new era of Black agency. What do many of these recent slavery themed films have in common? Black directors, writers, and producers! Until !2 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen), no major big screen film on slavery had a Black director. None. Zip. Nada. Since then: Belle (Amma Asante), Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker), Harriet (Kasi Lemmons), Emancipation (Antoine Fuqua). Emancipation also had Will Smith who served as the main actor and producer, while the Underground miniseries had John Legend as a key executive producer. The 2016 remake of Roots also had numerous black directors for different episodes. So why are we seeing more slavery-centered movies now than ever before? Probably because Black directors and producers for the first time in Hollywood’s 100+ year history have the clout and power to get them made.
Even still, slavery films account for a tiny sliver of cinematic releases. Even among “Black-led films,” they are a distinct minority–on average accounting for a meager 2 to 4%. Slavery films don’t even account for a majority of Black-led historical films. Yet this very small increase since 2013 is enough for many to notice–and often times exaggerate. When it comes to slavery, we remain so awkward and uncomfortable about the topic, that perception can often trump reality. So even when a classic work like Octavia Butler’s Kindred comes out, if it’s got slavery in it, there’s a segment of the (Black) viewing audience who are gonna be inherently averse–more “tired” about hearing about slavery than our ancestors were of living it. I said what I said.
The topic of slavery impacted Kindred’s reception in other ways. There’s a ready-made Black audience for SFF. But some are also turned off by speculative fiction that draw from histories or experiences of Black trauma. Alongside the rise of historical slavery films, we’ve also seen a set of films I call “speculative slavery.” These pull on themes of slavery to tell stories rooted in our past, our present, or both. This is not new, as the surrealist John Sayles film The Brother From Another Planet (1984) showed us in following a Black immigrant extraterrestrial hunted through contemporary New York by white slave catchers. Haile Gerima’s Sankofa also worked in themes of time travel and bodily transference. And enough sci-fi films from Enemy Mine (1985) to Alien Nation (1988) have played loose and fast with slavery analogies. But (with the exception of Sankofa) those were all written and directed by white men. As with more historical slavery films, we’re now seeing Black creatives taking up the reins to use slavery to tell their own imaginative stories. Many are horror based.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. As scholars of the horror genre like Kinitra Brooks point out, Black constructions of horror have long been rooted in memories of trauma. Freddy and Jason are scary enough, but they ain’t got sh*t on white supremacy. The horrors we dream up are real AF. Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2016) is a somewhat subtle example, using themes of slavery (from the auction block to medical experiments) to create its own particular brand of modern speculative terror. Gerard Bush’s Antebellum (2020) is far more blatant, having its main character slide between the slavery past and present. For some Black SFF fans, who are “tired” of Black trauma, Kindred‘s elements of slavery-related speculative horror may not be appealing. What’s more, coming on the heels of more recent works, it may not seem as fresh an idea as when it was first released.
Finally, there’s the whole adaptation thing. For true Kindred fans, there was immediate unease about whether any film adaptation would do right by the original text. In many Black SFF spaces, Octavia Butler is part muse and matron saint. You choose to translate one of her books onto the screen–you best not miss. Questions immediately swirled on whether they would “do right” by Butler’s work. Was this story better as a textual rather than visual medium? Could a film even capture the novel’s many nuanced themes? The 1998 cinematic adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved is perhaps instructive in the limits of literary to filmic mediums. As one friend of mine wrote bluntly after i sent him the trailer, “I hope they don’t f*ck it up.” Another really wished, “they’d get it right.”
So Kindred, despite having what is assumed to be a built in audience (especially among Black viewers), was already facing some headwinds. What can I say. We don’t all like the same things and got different opinions of stuff. Still, I chose to watch and support the series. Because if we don’t, then the chances for something like this to appear again becomes slighter. So what’s the verdict?
Changes Big and Small
Kindred the series is ambitious. Executive producer Brandon Jacob-Jenkins claims to have read the book over and over again–including the notes left by Butler herself. What we end up getting is like an expanded version of Kindred the book, where Jacob-Jenkins is able to tell stories that Butler herself couldn’t fit into her narrative. And that’s one of the most interesting things perhaps of the adaptation. Just 10 years ago, a film adaptation of a complex book like Kindred would have probably meant a movie for the big screen. Or worse, a film on a major TV network. Now, in our golden era of television and streaming platforms, stories like this that need the time and length to simply breathe can get the series treatment. It can make for more in depth storytelling as well as provide the opportunity to expand on characters and the world in general, in ways that the original text simply could not. And expansion means, lots of changes.
Look, all adaptations have to change if they’re going from one medium (like a book) to another. They can’t be verbatim or word for word. It’s just not possible. The text has its own limitations and strengths that just don’t work on the screen. Trying to just recreate a book in film form probably wouldn’t work. It’d feel off. Just as off as if you tried to simply retell a film in book form. Adding to this, is the time period the original story was written. Not everything in a book ages well. Things that might seem cutting edge or avant-garde in 1979 might seem cliché or flat to a 2022 visual audience. How race, identity, gender, etc. is perceived in 1979 has certainly gone through changes. And even forward thinking writers like Butler may not always hit the mark for a modern viewing audience. Those are going to invite changes by any screenwriter, who are naturally impacted by more modern events–especially if they want to connect with viewers. There are also some basic logistical issues. Kindred the book was set in the mid 1970s. Kindred the series is set in the present day. How does instantaneous communication and information via a smartphone change up how scenes play out? Do you need to make trips to the library to dig through the crates–or do you just look up digitized files on your laptop? So going into a modern day Kindred series, for lots of reasons, it has to be accepted as a given that there will be changes.
And the show didn’t shy away from that fact. There were lots of changes–more than perhaps I was accounting for. Some of the changes are small. This Dana (Mallori Johnson) is still a writer, but she wants to work in television–and in particular soap operas based on shows like Dynasty. This appears to be a tongue-in-cheek nod to the very adaptation from book to television this Kindred represents, as well as a bit of nostalgia evoking popular culture closer to the original text. While the series is set in 2016, there are changes that seem specifically attuned to our era of Black Lives Matter, MeToo, Trumpism, and white fictive perceptions of self–particular embodied in a set of nosy neighbors fashioned in the mold of NIMBY self-righteous white liberals who can’t see their own biases. Some changes seem intended just to flesh out characters and allow the show to fill up a few more seasons. So Dana’s aunt and her husband, who make appearances in the book, are more developed as individuals and play a more intricate role in the plot. I didn’t find any of these aforementioned changes jarring. They were more cosmetic than anything else, and even entertaining–although the set up with Dana’s aunt is obviously leading to a much bigger role in seasons to come.
But there were some big changes.
The changes that made me say “whoa!,” mainly focused on people close to Dana. The first up, was Kevin (Micah Stock). In the books, Dana is married to a white man–what I always perceived as Butler’s way of making a modern Black person traveling back and forth to the era of slavery even more messy and complicated. The show, however, changes Dana and Kevin’s relationship into something not even at boyfriend/girlfriend stage. Rather than also being an aspiring writer who is just hitting his stride (as in the book), Kevin in the series is an aspiring writer who is a waiter in a restaurant. He meets Dana when she visits the restaurant with her aunt and her husband–where the three have a terse and awkward meal. Dana and Kevin end up having the most random of rom-com type setups where she is in need of a ride home after the tense dinner with her aunt. Kevin offers it, cracks corny jokes, they talk by text days later…yadda, yadda, yadda, sparks and sexy stuff happens.
Like in the book, Kevin gets swept up into Dana’s mysterious time traveling–witnessing her disappearance and return and eventually getting sucked into the past with her. But in the series this happens to them as a “couple” (stretching the term) who barely know each other, like at all. This is more so the story of two (almost) strangers who are thrust into extraordinary circumstances together and the stress of it is either going to tear them apart or bring them together. The choice was certainly a bold one. And according to producer Brandon Jacob-Jenkins, quite intentional. As he relates, Dana’s marriage to a white man in the mid 1970s was cutting edge for its day. And that’s a good point. The Sidney Poitier movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the landmark case legalizing interracial marriage, Loving v. Virginia, were both precisely 9 years old in the year Kindred was initially set. Uhura and Kirk’s famous kiss had only been beamed into American televisions 8 years previous. The swirl was still fairly new in popular media.
But it’s not 1976–it’s 2022. And producer Jacob-Jenkins felt the Kevin of the books just wouldn’t vibe with a modern audience. In fact, as I think back to that Kevin, he was kinda annoying. On several occasions, Dana is left frustrated as he seems unable to see the prejudice and racism about him that she experiences–about what you’d expect from a white guy in the 1970s. As Jacob-Jenkins put it, he couldn’t even imagine a young Black woman in 2016 putting up with a lot of the “Kevin energy” in the book. Not surprising then, this Kevin is a lot more woke than book Kevin. Sure he makes his share of white guy faux pas. But he isn’t so quick to dismiss Dana’s experiences and can suss out the racism for himself. Jacob-Jenkins also explained that he felt that exploring Dana’s relationship less as an already established relationship and one that still has to navigate the racial, sexual, and gendered paradigms of the 21st century–not to mention 1880s slave plantations–seemed to make for a better story. Those are certainly all debatable reasons for this glaring change. And I imagine some will buy it, and others not. What I did find most interesting–and unexpected–about this change was how impactful it was going to be to how the story was told.
Kevin, as the very recent love interest of Dana, ends up playing a much bigger role in the series than in the book. In the book, everything is from Dana’s perspective. Here, with the differing POVs common to a film medium, we get a lot of Kevin’s perspective–often with Dana not even present. And I found, to my surprise, I actually liked it. Kevin as a character is undeniably interesting. He’s a bit bumbling, and is completely unprepared for getting tossed into the past. It seems at any moment he’s going to have a breakdown as he finds himself referred to as a slave owner (of Dana) and has to come up with lies to cover up more lies. At times he’s almost paralyzed until Dana tells him to get it together. We also get to see scenes of slavery through his eyes that are jarring–including one of black children thrown food after a performance like animals and another moment of forced sexual violence presented as a type of sport. As he sits and interacts with the planter class we get to see them as they might interact with other white people–and it exposes them as the often petty, vindictive, selfish, disturbed sociopaths that they are.
And here might be a problem. Kevin’s character is so interesting, there’s a case to be made that at times he overshadows Dana as the protagonist. I found my mind wandering to, “wonder what’s going on with Kevin?” or “Hey, let’s go to a Kevin scene.” I found myself conflicted: both liking Kevin’s expanded role, but also uncomfortable with how much it’s taken over parts of the narrative away from Dana. Even the cliffhanger at the season’s end leaves more interest with what’s been going on with Kevin (who ends up stuck in the past) than Dana.
The other big change, certainly the biggest in the series, revolves around Dana’s mother. In the book, all we know about her is that she died when Dana was young. But the series makes a big creative decision in bringing Dana’s mother back to life–as a time traveler herself! For reasons that remain not fully explained, it seems in this telling Dana comes from a line of time traveling women, one of which was her mother. Upon traveling back to the early 1800s she learns that a free black woman living near the plantation is none other than her time traveling mother, trapped and unable to return. It seems Jacob-Jenkins didn’t make this out of whole cloth. He claims that in Butler’s notes, this may have been an idea left on the editing floor–something the author just couldn’t fit into the narrative. The series, afforded a set of seasons, has decided to take a try at it. Trying to one-up Octavia huh? Okay. This provides a story device for the series, where Dana’s mother can relate information about the plantation and the slave community–things Dana in the book has to figure out and learn on her own. And she expands the larger plot, trying to get to the mystery of her time traveling as well as her motives–which seem unclear.
The best I can say for this is–bold move there Jacob-Jenkins. I don’t dislike it really. But maaayyynne, I hope you know where you’re going with this. Because extraordinary changes deserve some extraordinary resolutions.
So Where Is this Going?
If there was one question that kept popping into my head as I watched the series it was–where is this going? The book, I know well enough. Dana travels back in time because she’s drawn there by the young white boy Rufus Weylin–who seems to be near death’s door a lot in the early nineteenth-century. She learns that Rufus is in reality her ancestor, through the sexual abuse of an enslaved woman–also her ancestor. Dana is then put in the stomach-turning position of working to maintain this dysfunctional and abusive union. It is a literal existential crisis and she will end up sacrificing parts of herself (quite literally) in the process.
The series seems to be following along these contours in general. We meet Rufus Weylin (David Alexander) his tyrannical father Thomas Weylin (Ryan Kwanten–Jason from True Blood), and his very unlikable mother Margaret Weylin (Gayle Rankin). They play their parts well enough, as white despotic planters of the age. A few new white characters–including one predatory planter in the closet–also make an appearance to liven up the plot. The slave community, as in the books, is full of diverse characters–the most powerfully acted being Sarah (Sophina Brown), a cook who is given a serious upgrade in the series. Some like Luke (Austin Smith) somewhat resemble their literary counterparts with several changes that are difficult to evaluate. Others like Winnie (Amethyst Davis) appear to be composite characters created from several book characters. Winnie’s purpose appeared to be to bring new tension and suspense–but also felt somewhat wasted in the larger story line.
Overall, I liked some aspects of the adaptation and some upgrades. But other parts, left me wanting. I was never certain what to make of Dana overall as a character. The Dana in the book is, by necessity, extremely introspective. She’s always having these inner thoughts and monologues that we are privy to as she navigates these strange and terrifying circumstances. The medium of film doesn’t provide for that–or at least the choice is made not to give her a vocal inner narration. So this often made me feel disconnected from the character, in ways that were so different from the book. I don’t think this is a fault of the actress by the way–more so the way she’s written for the series.
Take for instance, her forays into the slave past. Kindred, to me, was always in many ways a horror story. What would not be horrific to any Black person in the slave trade Diaspora to be transported back in time into slavery? It is our shared psychic terror as survivors of the Middle Passage. It is a primal nightmare. Yet, I sometimes didn’t feel that Dana in the series reacts to her situation with the sheer terror she should–the way the Dana of the books often came across. This Dana often seems more clinical, very accepting, and (quite frankly) stupefyingly bold in her actions, given her predicament. A whole lotta times I was just, “Dana, what is you doing?!” The terror part of the story feels diminished in the series, until perhaps near the final episode where Dana for the first time seems to feel the impact of where she is, the profound danger she’s in, and the overwhelming horror of it all.
That being said, I was still there for each following episode. The show kept my interest–despite my criticisms. Enough I think to keep me around for Season 2. Does Kindred the series in the end live up to the book? I don’t even know if that’s the proper question. It’s something different from the book, something more expansive and complex–for good or ill. As an adaptation, it’s a bit shaky. As a standalone production, it’s still looking to ground itself. It’s going to have at least another season to do so. And I’m willing to give it that chance.
Overall–I give Kindred 3.75 out of 5 stars. Roughly, a B-. See you next year.