Kindred Review: Compelling FX Drama Takes a Modern-Day Look at the Horrors of Antebellum Life
Depictions of slavery on TV have come a long way since Roots first brought America’s original sin to our sets. In recent years, series like Underground, The Underground Railroad, and The Good Lord Bird have explored the antebellum period and the complexities of the lives of enslaved people, correcting a long history of African-American ancestors being written as mindless servants and racist caricatures. The new FX series Kindred, which streams exclusively on Hulu next week, continues this wave, as the long-awaited adaptation of the Octavia Butler novel examines the often-unspoken legacy of slavery on modern-day society.
The series centers on Dana (Mallori Johnson), an aspiring television writer newly arrived in L.A. after the seemingly impulsive sale of her late grandmother’s Brooklyn brownstone. Dana’s parents passed away when she was young, and her remaining family disapproves of her choices, so she finds comfort in Kevin (Micah Stock), a musician and waiter. Amid the move-in, the 26-year-old has also been experiencing troubling visions; in the first, she finds herself in a nursery, where she helps a baby in imminent peril before encountering her deceased mother. The second trip cannot be written off as a dream; she’s transported to the bank of a river, where she rescues a red-haired boy from drowning. It’s clear that she’s been transported through space and time, and though it sounds impossible, she knows something real and dangerous is happening.
Those familiar with the genre-bending novel know that Dana has been sucked into a time-bending symbiotic relationship with the red-haired boy, who is actually her ancestor, Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan). Rufe is the son of a Maryland plantation owner in the 1800s, and Dana is the direct descendant of the child he will have with one of his slaves. In order for Dana to ensure her own bloodline, she’ll have to protect the boy long enough for him to father her ancestor, while surviving the horrors of slavery and the whims of the boy’s cruel father Tom (Ryan Kwanten) and possessive mother Margaret (Gayle Rankin).
The premise itself is engrossing enough to propel an eight-episode season, and showrunner Branden Jacob-Jenkins expands on the book’s plot to include subplots and characters that enhance the show’s main quandary: How would a modern-day Black woman withstand the abuse of slavery? Jacob-Jenkins deftly intertwines past and present, showing why Dana and Kevin (who also time-traveled to the 1800s) can’t shake off what they’ve experienced once they return to the modern day. The looming tension surrounding the Weylin plantation continues in scenes in which the pair has to deal with the surveillance of Dana’s “helpful” neighbors, who militantly try to keep the peace on their Silver Lake block with NextDoor surveillance and threats to call the police. Meanwhile, a new storyline involving Dana’s mother Olivia (Sheria Irving) nods to the legacy of lost histories of African-American families, while also adding an intriguing layer to the overall mystery.
An important question for any piece of art about slavery produced in 2022 is whether the work gives an honest portrayal of the practice that honors what the enslaved survived, or if the depiction just revels in the time’s cruelty, presenting human misery as mere spectacle. Kindred does the former, as Dana serves as the audience surrogate learning the dynamics of the plantation. The series doesn’t flinch away from the injustice of antebellum society, but it doesn’t use unrelenting gory violence or copious racial slurs to make its point. Instead, it respects the audience’s intelligence, understanding that an offhand remark or a dismissive gesture is enough to establish the social structure of the time.
Despite its stellar examination of the dynamics between the enslaver and the enslaved, this debut season of Kindred doesn’t spend much time exploring the most compelling dynamic in the book. The show’s entire premise is based on the supernatural tie between Dana and Rufus, but they aren’t around each other that often. Instead, the series elevates the relationship between Dana and Kevin, which takes up a large chunk of the show’s runtime. Like in the book, Kevin also spends time in the 1800s, and at one point, he (a white man) is shocked that the Weylins think Dana is his slave, to which she responds, “That’s not surprising.” While Dana works, Kevin ingratiates himself with the Weylins to ensure they’re welcome on the plantation. But as Kevin’s dealings with Tom and Margaret get more attention later in the season, it made me question whether the time would be better spent building Dana and Rufus’ connection. It’s a lot of agency to give a white man within a story about the horrors of slavery, and though a general (white) audience probably won’t mind Kevin’s upgrade to a co-lead, book fans may be left annoyed.
Kindred | Official Trailer | FX
If the average liberal-minded person living today were asked whether they could get used to slavery, they would likely say no, be they Black or white. Kindred is a show that challenges the many assumptions within that answer, presenting a compelling, thought-provoking scenario in a well-written and expertly directed package. (The pilot, helmed by Zola’s Janicza Bravo, is a particular standout.) The eight-episode run is unflinching without being cruel, and the show has undeniable potential for another season when considering the scale of the source material. The genre-bending living nightmare may not be an easy watch, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary.
Kindred premieres December 13 on Hulu.