Kindred review – a reductive, hollow view of Black trauma | Television

Adapting a beloved literary classic is a daunting task, but the team behind Kindred, based on Octavia Butler’s 1972 novel – and its time-travelling exploration of slavery – is a promising one. The series is developed by the acclaimed playwright, and MacArthur-certified genius, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, with a pilot directed by buzzy Zola director Janicza Bravo. Its young star, Mallori Johnson, comes with Julliard school of performing arts’ stamp of approval. Those classy credentials are clear in the pilot where a tense family dinner at a restaurant and subsequent “meet cute” with a charming waiter are scintillatingly written and performed. But as the show dives into its central concept, it becomes increasingly insubstantial, with an accelerating brutality that feels hollow and gratuitous.

Where the novel had its protagonist Dana bouncing between 1976 and the antebellum south, the television adaptation specifies the present as 2016. We follow an aspiring Black soap opera writer who uses her inheritance to move to suburban LA, complete with McMansion and uppity white micro-aggression-heavy neighbours. She has a budding relationship with aspiring musician Kevin, which is complicated when Dana finds herself transported back to early 19th century Maryland every time her ancestor Rufus’s life is in danger – and she has to save his life in order to secure her bloodline.

This is made murkier by Rufus being the white son of a brutal plantation owner, and Dana ultimately facilitating the incident that led to her bloodline: the future assault and impregnation of an enslaved black woman. To make matters worse, Kevin begins to travel back to the past alongside Dana and takes on the role of her owner in this world, which provides her with some protection, but makes the relationship between the two all the more fraught. While the precise cause of the time travel is never made explicit, it is established that Dana returns to the present at moments of high stress when she feels her life is in danger. But over the course of the series Dana becomes increasingly numb to violence, and it takes more and more hostility to elicit that same response. This, sadly, mirrors the experience of watching it – what at first elicited shock becomes increasingly mundane. The show repeats the steps ad nauseam until they have no impact beyond being extremely depressing.

The decreasing quality of Kindred’s eight episodes is made all the more disappointing in the wake of Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, which took the magical realism of (another bona fide MacArthur genius) Colson Whitehead’s novel and exquisitely transposed the harrowing tale to the screen. While sensitively and artfully depicting Black trauma in a way that is true to the horrors of enslavement is a narrow tightrope to walk, it is demonstrably possible. Kindred seems content to plainly relay the plot mechanic of its source material without using the potential the televisual medium’s potential in any meaningful sense.

After the first episode, and even with Johnson’s ample time on screen, nothing is established about Dana beyond being a person to whom this wild stuff is happening. That lack of characterisation means that the show feels gratuitous, and the suffering we witness becomes an increasingly ugly slog. The central romance turns into a feat of endurance, and even family bonds have no weight. Her retired police officer uncle Alan (Charles Parnell) and nurse aunt Denise (Elisa Davis) are worried about Dana, concerned that she may be suffering from the same delusions as her late mother, but their interactions are one note and aggressive, stripped of all the warmth and subtlety of a complex shared history. What The Underground Railroad understood is that even the horrors of enslavement aren’t all-consuming; Black trauma happens to three-dimensional humans who still have room for love, friendship and romance.

Octavia Butler’s groundbreaking novel interrogated enslavement and its enduring systematic legacy with thoughtful nuance, which is largely absent from this adaptation. Even though the performances are uniformly strong, the material is woefully over-simplified, and the visuals are bland and sludgy. For a series that moves through time and space and back again, the world feels claustrophobically small, never speaking to anything larger than the struggles of a few people and an even smaller number of sets.

Given the sparks that fly between Kevin and Dana in the first episode, to see them relegated to archetypical “uncomfortable white ally” and “brutalised black woman” for the remainder of the series is incredibly disappointing. But even worse is that such a talented team with such incredible source material have produced such inelegant work. While the series ends on a cliffhanger, it has already been announced that it will not return. The substantial talent of this team is now free to move on to projects where they might be better utilised – which, at least, is something to be encouraged by.

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Kindred is on Disney+

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