FX’s “Kindred,” which begins streaming Tuesday on Hulu, plunges viewers into a mystery that exists to be experienced, not solved. A young Black woman named Dana, later revealed as an aspiring TV writer in modern-day Los Angeles, lies dazed and apparently injured on the floor of her new house. Barely able to move, she grabs a bag and gathers clothes, a kitchen knife and a bottle of aspirin. She eases into a tub of water, which turns red from her wounds. Then the police start banging on her door, demanding to know whether anything is wrong.
What exactly is happening? There’s no long wait for an answer. Like the 1979 novel by Octavia E. Butler that inspired it, the new series quickly reveals that Dana somehow is time-traveling back to an early-1800s Maryland plantation, the place where her ancestors lived with the horrific reality of slavery. While the eight episodes (which arrive all at once) make some changes to the book’s narrative, the show’s creator, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, says his dream scenario would be for people to watch them in tandem with reading Butler’s print version.
“The book will always be the book, and Octavia, thank God, her work will always be there. I just wanted to celebrate her,” says the noted playwright and Obie award winner, who previously worked on HBO’s “Watchmen.”
“That’s what got me through the hardest days, thinking Octavia, Octavia, Octavia.”
“Kindred” is the latest FX show to screen exclusively on Hulu, a partnership that has resulted in the acclaimed “Reservation Dogs,” a comedy-drama about young Native Americans, and “The Bear,” which made the phrase “Yes, chef!” go viral with its intense, quirky portrayal of the staff of a Chicago Italian sandwich spot.
Like those critical hits, Jacobs-Jenkins’ adaptation has the potential for big pop-culture impact, particularly since Butler’s writings have become a hot source for film and TV projects. “Kindred” is first to be completed of several screen projects drawn from the author’s works. They include a post-apocalyptic saga based on “Dawn” from Ava DuVernay’s production company, a romance involving immortals spun from “Wild Seed” from Viola Davis’ Juvee Productions and a vampire tale from “Fledging” that’s being executive-produced by Issa Rae and J.J. Abrams.
An icon in the science fiction genre, Butler is now considered one of the most notable writers of the 20th century. She spent years in obscurity, writing in the small hours of the morning and supporting herself with routine jobs during the day. “Kindred” was considered her breakthrough novel. In addition to winning several major sci-fi awards, Butler received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 1995. She was the first sci-fi author so honored.
Since Butler’s death in 2006 at age 58, interest in her short stories and novels has continued to grow as readers keep discovering the relevance of the themes that she addressed: climate change, racial injustice, economic and social inequality among them. During the COVID-19 pandemic, her 1993 novel “The Parable of the Sower” reached the New York Times best-seller list, offering what Slate called in 2020 “a blueprint for adjusting to uncertainty.”
“I think if there is a resurgence of interest for her today, it’s because what really defines her is her prescience. She was a visionary, the way that she understands the issues to come. … When you think of the ‘Parable of the Sower,’ her book on climate change, the story takes place in 2024, so we’re almost there. It’s where everything collapses,” says Benedicte Boisseron, a professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan who participated in a panel discussion on Butler’s enduring influence in March 2022 during an Octavia Butler Week at the Ann Arbor campus.
Jacob-Jenkins, who discovered Butler’s books as a young teen, says “Kindred” always has stayed with him. When he returned to the book in 2010 as an adult, “I finished reading it and thought this is a television show.” The project was sold to FX in 2016 and stayed in development for about five years. The pilot finally was shot in fall 2021, and filming for the entire series took place for about six months in 2022, with rural Georgia subbing for Maryland.
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Despite the time-travel element of “Kindred,” it recounts what daily life was like for enslaved men and women in the antebellum South with the painful accuracy of a real memoir. Butler did extensive research for the novel, traveling by bus from California to Maryland and visiting historical sites like Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, which in the 1970s barely addressed the existence of slavery
“There wasn’t the internet, there wasn’t Google, there wasn’t really even, like, library shelves full of scholarship. She was really kind of trying to save something from oblivion, maybe,” Jacobs-Jenkins says. “For me, it’s a great irony of the book that it remains feeling so present tense because I think it just indicates how resistant the culture is to really processing the meaningfulness of this history.”
Jacobs-Jenkins read Butler’s papers and reflected on the differences between 1979 and today before choosing the departures that the series makes from the book. For instance, Dana’s time travel is changed to a generational phenomenon that was shared by certain relatives, a twist that he says was inspired by Butler’s early drafts.
Also, the character of Kevin (Dana’s white husband in the book) becomes a new love interest here who finds himself being taken along on this impossible, potentially lethal journey with a woman he barely knows. ”I just wanted to see if there was a way to build that relationship convincingly in real time,” says Jacobs-Jenkins.
There also is a nod to the contemporary “Karen” meme of white privilege with the addition of a neighbor who’s nosy to an intrusive level about what’s occurring at Dana’s house.
“For me, the best adaptations aren’t necessarily about translating something beat by beat, word for word, but trying to re-create in some ways what the original artist was attempting to create in their own context,” says Jacobs-Jenkins.
An Obie award winner who, like Butler, was himself a MacArthur “genius” fellow, Jacobs-Jenkins also took on the task of being the showrunner for “Kindred.” It was his first brush with being the person essentially in charge of guiding an entire series.
“The experience of going from a writer to a showrunner is like going from a beggar to a CEO overnight,” he says with a laugh. “I spent six years trying to prove to people the idea had something in it and suddenly you’re handed the keys to a thousand Mercedes.”
Despite challenges like having to shoot under COVID-19 safety precautions, Jacobs-Jenkins says he enjoyed the process, especially working with the actors. ”There were definitely a ton of difficulties, but I just felt that every day was a blessing.”
For the role of Dana, who is on-screen for most of the scenes in the series, the production found a future star in newcomer Mallori Johnson, who was in her fourth year of studying acting at Juilliard when she auditioned for the part. Micah Stock, her co-star as Kevin, describes her as an “astonishingly skilled actor” for someone just out of college. “There were times on set where those of us who were a little bit older would look at her and say, ‘I can’t do that.’”
Stock, one of several cast members from the New York theater scene, says he already was a friend and longtime fan of Jacobs-Jenkins when he he got the “Kindred” script from his representatives. “I think at some point in the process I wrote Branden and said, ‘I just want you to know I really want to do this,’” he says.
Although “Kindred” is more than 40 years old, it’s reaching small screens at a time when a debate is raging about how U.S. history and topics related to race are being taught in public schools. Stock thinks the series, like the book, will encourage dialogue.
“The show will spark these conversations, I’m sure, and there’ll be lots of discourse around these things. And ultimately, that’s the win, right? It’s the conversation.”
For a nation to have any true sense of reconciliation, facing the past as honestly as “Kindred” does is a necessary step. “It’s very important that people understand (that) to reckon with your history, you have to reckon with … the past of slavery,” says U-M’s Boisseron.
She’s glad that the book studied at universities has become a potential binge watch. “It opens Octavia Butler to a whole new audience,” she says.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All eight episodes arrive Tuesday on Hulu