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Awkward, Misguided Kindred Lets Down Its Source Material

A Black woman lies prone on the floor of an empty home. Her back is bloodied, her clothes are torn. She desperately yells for "Kevin" to no avail. She soon gathers herself and combs the home for supplies: A new shirt, a knife, a gun from the fridge, and her phone. The camera is distant, the jagged editing as methodical as her foraging. After she soaks in the tub, with a clock prominently placed at its foot, she hears her front door. It's the cops. And they want in. This cryptic preamble aims to instill mystery and intrigue into the viewer. And yet, every creative decision moves with a creaky, mechanical precision. It's a glaring weakness that will haunt the FX miniseries "Kindred" more than the generic plotting could hope to accomplish. 

Following the teasing opening, writer and showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins takes viewers back to two days ago. We learn the identity of the distraught woman at the center of the drama, Dana (Mallori Johnson). She's recently moved to Los Angeles to break into television writing after selling her grandmother's New York City townhome. Though she lost her mother and father years ago to a car accident, Dana does have family in her aunt, a nurse, and her uncle Alan (Charles Parnell), a retired police officer. They are concerned about Dana. She seems impulsive and unwell, like her mother. Her white boyfriend, Kevin (Micah Stock), is similarly worried. He often catches her screaming as she sleepwalks. See, Dana dreams about living during slavery. And it appears to all be a terrible nightmare, a figment of her imagination, until she transports herself and Kevin back to Antebellum America. How can she return home? Why can she time travel? And for what purpose? 

Though adapted from Octavia Butler's groundbreaking, supernatural novel of the same name, "Kindred" is a pale imitation of the author's thought-provoking interrogation of slavery's historical role in instigating contemporary systematic inequality. Butler's clear-eyed themes are watered in this series; her creative vision of time travel is reduced to an unimaginative parlor trick, and her inspired world-building isn't honored. Moreover, Butler's Kindred isn't a bold reimagining of 1970s racial politics (the decade of the novel's publication) through a present-day lens. This FX series, on the other hand, is a top-down over-simplification of the radical source material.          

I hate comparing every project centering on enslaved Black folks to Barry Jenkins' "The Underground Railroad," mainly because I sound like a broken record, but that series is the gold standard for these stories. Every project that has followed in its wake contends with the vast creative shadow Jenkins left. While Butler's work was published over 40 years old, in itself upholding the mantle of these narratives, you can't help but notice how far short the televised version of Butler's novel—a work as rich and dense as Colson Whitehead's narrative—falls short of Jenkins' miniseries. Unlike Jenkins' work, Jacob-Jenkins has made "Kindred" more palatable for a streaming audience who are probably unaware of the source material yet desire to see a narrative concerned with the kind of surface-level examinations common to so many present-day slavery-themed period pieces. 

"Kindred" is filled with moments where the craft fails to match the story, opting for visually bland design choices at every turn. The plantation, the clothes, and the period detail lack a lived-in quality. When Dana and Kevin arrive at the plantation of the drunkard enslaver Thomas Weylin (Ryan Kwanten), we learn that since the death of his wife and his remarriage to Margaret (Gayle Rankin), the grounds and home has, in some respects, fallen into disrepair. And yet, nothing in the set dressing tells us that. Even when relatives of the Weylins visit and chide Tom and Margaret about selling off the finer items, it doesn't immediately hit amid the seeming opulence.

That same generic aesthetic carries over to the series' shooting: Inert compositions that reveal nothing about the characters, odd decisions regarding coverage, and blunt editing that disrupts rather than casts a supernatural spell. As a result, you're never quite sure what visual tone this series wants to set or the rhythm we should feel. Instead, the supposed arresting tension that should command our attention is merely a bundle of teases that carry very little meaningful weight.   

Throughout eight episodes, we learn that Thomas' young, sickly son, Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan), is somehow connected to Dana's time-traveling abilities. We also meet some of the enslaved folks who populate the plantations: A Black overseer and bitter childhood friend of Thomas named Luke (Austin Smith), an enslaved woman (Amethyst Davis) who Thomas pines for, and a free woman, the local healer who many call a witch (Sheria Irving) and might have a special connection with Dana. These characters dance on the periphery of importance, but they are imperative only because the series tells us they are. And yet, even as mismatched puzzle pieces, none conjure a genuine curiosity for the viewer. 

That shortcoming wouldn't break the series if the toothless, ungainly dialogue and the unimaginative nature of Kevin and Dana as characters weren't also uninteresting. Despite Stock's best efforts, Kevin doesn't acquire a personality beyond being a discomforted white guy. He never inspires any mystery or tragic hues supposedly lurking beneath his exterior. The same can be said of Dana as Johnson drowns in the feckless writing. Dana isn't a fascinating enigma. Nor is she a fully sketched person with a discernible personality. She says nothing exciting and, apart from time traveling, does nothing especially remarkable. Yes, Dana longs for her mother. But what else does she pine for? What are her other character traits? Why is she attracted to Kevin? It's all too ill-defined to be indelible, too superficial to pull you down toward its intended depth. 

Why adapt a work as rich and unflinching as Butler's Kindred without developing the racial, political, and cultural topics that make the source material so profound? Worse yet, why not consider what a story like Kindred means in 2022? Especially since a brief mention in the series tells us that these events took place in 2016. If the showrunners have these questions in mind, it's never made apparent, and the allegorical function of Butler's words is rendered moot in their incapable hands. By the time episode eight rolls around, teasing a second season, one can scarcely imagine returning to such an elementary, drama-less consideration of a masterwork. This version of "Kindred" is without a past, a present, or a future.

The whole season was screened for review. All episodes are available now on Hulu.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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