FX’s “Kindred,” streaming on Hulu, is the long-awaited adaptation of what is arguably sci-fi trailblazer Octavia E. Butler’s most well-known novel. Released in 1979, “Kindred” is a literary mash-up that is part slave narrative, fantasy and historical fiction. What many regard as Butler’s magnum opus transports a modern Black woman back in time to a plantation where she experiences life as an enslaved woman. To bring this work to life, which has been in the Hollywood pipeline since at least the 1990s, FX tasked Obie Award-winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, noted for his plays “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon” as well as Pulitzer Prize finalists “Gloria” and “Everybody.” Jacobs-Jenkins also served as a producer on HBO’s critically acclaimed, multiple Emmy Award-winning limited series “Watchmen,” which propelled the horrific Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 into popular conversations.
Which is all to say, this adaptation of “Kindred” has some serious bona fides bringing it to life.
There are major shifts to the story from Butler’s novel, including the time shift from the mid-1970s to mid-2010s as well as Dana now relocating from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, instead of being a native of the latter. And, instead of Kevin, who is white, being her husband, he is evolving from casual hook-up to de facto boyfriend. These changes dramatically impact the show’s overall believability, which in turn impacts whether viewers will become emotionally invested enough to continue streaming the eight-episode series.
As a recent transplant, Dana (Mallori Johnson), an aspiring TV writer with a love for the juicy 1980s primetime soap “Dynasty,” is extremely new to the city and literally has no friends. Her only family is her aunt Denise (Eisa Davis), her father’s sister and a nurse, and Denise’s husband Alan (Charles Parnell, “Top Gun: Maverick”), a former LAPD cop. Before dinner even starts, Dana, who arrives late, informs them that she has moved to the city abruptly after quickly selling her grandmother’s Brooklyn brownstone and purchasing her now L.A. home after taking a virtual tour. To her surprise, her relatives are not thrilled. When the dinner ends, she insists she can make her own way home before realizing her phone is dead. When the restaurant, which is closing, won’t charge her phone, her waiter for the evening Kevin (Micah Stock) offers her a ride.
Despite their banter, no intense or immediate attraction is available. Still, Dana connects with Kevin on a dating app. When Dana needs a mattress for the new home and has no one else to call, the two end up connecting. They hook up and casually hang until Dana’s inexplicable transportation back into the past also includes him.
From her home, Dana begins experiencing what she initially believes is just vivid nightmares. Later on, she learns that she is time-traveling back to the Weylin plantation in the 1800s where she finds she has an intense connection with Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan), the only child of plantation owner Thomas/Tom (a standout Ryan Kwanten) and his wife Margaret (Gayle Rankin), beginning with him as a baby.
As she pops in and out of Rufus’ life, with him somehow calling her to him, she discovers other personal entanglements, especially one involving her mother Olivia (Sheria Irving) who passed away when she was young. After Kevin joins her, society deems him her owner and she his concubine. In a move that is sure to spark controversy, “Kindred” focuses also on Kevin’s horror at slavery, communicating that he shares nothing with “those” white people. Still Dana is the main focus. But how she handles herself in that capacity won’t please all either.
Butler intended “Kindred” to be an eye-opener as well as counter to claims of her time that present day Black people would handle slavery much more differently than people did back then. With Kanye “Ye” West’s memorable assertion that “slavery was a choice,” it’s clear that perspective is still in play. The problem is Dana doesn’t quite challenge it.
In many instances, she seems oblivious to the horror and suffering in a meaningful way. Though she encounters Luke (Austin Smith), Sarah (Sophina Brown), Sarah’s daughter Carrie (Lindsey Blackwell) and more, all enslaved by Tom, as well as Alice (Abigail Shannon), a free ancestor of hers that her mother Olivia, who is also free, watches and guards, Dana frequently isn’t emotionally tuned in. Too often, there is a lack of depth in her interactions with Luke, Sarah (roles Smith and Brown play superbly) and others.
With the demonstrable affection young Rufus, who is the Weylin Plantation heir, and Kevin have for her, Dana is protected in ways that arguably cloud her judgement and make her blind to the magnitude and human cost of what she is seeing and others around her are sharing. Trips back to the present, where a neighborly “Karen” and her husband try to figure out what’s going on, fail to tie slavery’s ongoing impact.
This is not to say that “Kindred” should have indulged in “trauma porn.” Instead, Jacobs-Jenkins and his collaborators should have dug deeper. Although Johnson and the rest of the cast do a good job in what they have been asked to do, the writing and overall plot and circumstances fail to do the same. As “Kindred” flows from episode to episode, it never fully taps into Dana’s innermost feelings of shock, horror, and perhaps even desperation as an enslaved woman.
Like so many other movies and series set in this era, “Kindred” doesn’t deliver the emotional connection needed to elicit the true outrage we should have for this dastardly institution. And, with the resources available to us today, that is just unacceptable.
Black audiences’ “slavery fatigue” with film and TV shows in this vein is no secret. Should “Kindred” — which, judging by its cliffhanger ending, is clearly banking on continuing — manage to pull off a second season, it will have to do considerable work to erase the gap between potential and execution.
All episodes of “Kindred” are now streaming on Hulu.