‘Black Cake’ Review: Hulu’s Epic Tale of Family Secrets Centers the Caribbean Diaspora

The Oprah-produced series, starring Mia Isaac, revolves around the mysterious life of a Jamaican Chinese woman and her ambitious children

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Mia Isaac in "Black Cake." (James Van Evers/Hulu)

Since the pandemic, Black female-driven content with universal appeal has found a home on Hulu. Stepping away from the cliched stories that have too often defined others’ efforts, each new project from the streamer, be it “The 1619 Project” or the recent “The Other Black Girl,” grows increasingly more ambitious. “Black Cake,” produced by Oprah Winfrey, pushes the boundaries even further by centering on a biracial, immigrant woman’s experience.

Adapted from Charmaine Wilkerson’s New York Times-bestselling novel of the same name, the sweeping eight-episode family drama from showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar revolves around a Jamaican Chinese woman who has lived an epic life spanning various parts of the globe. The problem is: Her past has been kept hidden from her children. Only through a flash drive of audio recordings played after her death do they learn that they know very little of her story. As their mother unravels her life from the grave, they must face many hard truths of their own.

Shot in Jamaica, England, Italy and the US, “Black Cake” unveils the many aspects of Eleanor Bennett’s life. Chipo Chung (“Silo,” “Into the Badlands”) plays the elder, widowed Eleanor who is slowly slipping away, while rising star Mia Isaac (“Don’t Make Me Go,” “Not Okay”) navigates her younger years, where she is known as Covey.

Abandoned by her Jamaican mother and raised by her Chinese father Lin and mother’s best friend Pearl, Covey is a confident aspiring swimmer who wishes big things for her future. That all changes when the husband she didn’t want unexpectedly dies, and she is forced to leave her cocoon for Europe where she encounters new and amended facets of herself. Once she makes it to America, Covey grows into an elegant and demanding woman who has a complex dynamic with her children Byron and Benny.

As her recordings — administered by family friend and attorney Charles Mitch (an always capable Glynn Turman) per her instructions — unleash surprising secrets, Eleanor’s children drop some bombshells of their own. Though inspired by his mother’s love of swimming to become a brilliant ocean scientist, Byron (Ashley Thomas) is forced to confront the role that racial discrimination has played in limiting his career and diminishing his self-esteem. Meanwhile Benny (Adrienne Warren), an artist, chef and the family’s ultimate dreamer, feels insecure in her brother’s high-achieving shadow — one of many reasons she’s distanced herself for nearly a decade. Now that both parents have passed, they are left with no one to blame. Mysteriously caught in the middle of it all is Mabel (Sonita Henry), a culinary superstar from Italy.

In an environment where stories centering Caribbean, Asian and other groups of color have faced difficulty reaching the mainstream, “Black Cake” is a promising departure. Cerar, whose writing and producing credits include monster hits ”The Handmaid’s Tale” and ”13 Reasons Why,” notably led ABC’s ”Women of the Movement” in 2022, chronicling Mamie Till-Mobley’s life after the horrific lynching of her son Emmett in Mississippi.

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Ashley Thomas and Chipo Chung in “Black Cake.” (James Van Evers/Hulu)

“Black Cake,” however, is more personal. While not of the Caribbean Diaspora, as a biracial woman, Cerar felt more connected to this work in surprising ways. The result is characters who feel complex and aspirational, yet relatable even to audiences that don’t resemble the core cast. The show illustrates just how rarely immigrant stories are told from the perspective of a woman of color, which often leaves the intersectionality of race, culture, gender or even motherhood unexplored for mass consumption. Packed with mystery, murder, love, family and self-discovery, there are few hard-hitting themes “Black Cake” fails to uncover.

In their roles as Eleanor and young Covey, Chung and Isaac are quite compelling. Still, it is Isaac — whom some may also remember from Issa Rae’s recent “Project Greenlight” takeover — that astonishes. Tasked with most of the heavy lifting, Isaac, not yet 20, more than delivers, capturing the young woman’s innocence as well as the weight and toll life’s unexpected betrayals place on her. Even fresher faces from the cast impress, including Lashay Anderson as Covey’s best friend Bunny, Ahmed Elhaj as Covey’s young love Gibbs and Karisse Yansen as Covey’s friend Elly.

As Byron, British actor and one-time rapper Ashley Thomas (“Them,” “24: Legacy,” “Top Boy”) continues to prove his chops, bringing an impactful presence to every scene. Adrienne Warren, the Tony winner who brought the great Tina Turner to life on stage, plays a much more whimsical role as Benny than she did as Mamie Till-Mobley in her previous collaboration with Cerar. Together, Thomas and Warren absolutely sell their fragile, yet unbreakable brother-sister bond. “Surfside” actress Sonita Henry also captivates as Mabel, demanding attention in every frame in which she appears.

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Adrienne Warren in “Black Cake.” (James Van Evers/Hulu)

“Black Cake” is a groundbreaking and pleasing watch that entertains as it cracks open the door for never-ending narrative possibilities for truly diverse and dynamic stories. By pulling from human experience, “Black Cake” puts what is exotic to the white gaze in proper context as other people’s real and lived lives. In our ever-increasing global society, it’s nice to see that we can all take up space.

“Black Cake” premieres with the first three episodes Wednesday, Nov. 1, on Hulu.

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