Mallori Johnson as Dana James in Kindred

Mallori Johnson as Dana James in Kindred

Courtesy of FX
Dana (Mallori Johnson) finds herself on the bank of a strange river as Kindred unfurls her voyage through space and time.

Dana (Mallori Johnson) finds herself on the bank of a strange river as Kindred unfurls her voyage through space and time.

Tina Thorpe/FX
On location, Mallori Johnson reacts to showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins during a break; far right: Ryan Kwanten, who plays plantation owner Thomas Weylin.

On location, Mallori Johnson reacts to showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins during a break; far right: Ryan Kwanten, who plays plantation owner Thomas Weylin.

Tina Rowden/FX
Fill 1
Fill 1
December 12, 2022
Features

A Kindred Spirit

In the new FX series Kindred, a Black woman is powerless against forces that send her hurtling through time β€” to the antebellum South β€” then back to the present day. "It's difficult subject matter," allows showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a descendant of slaves on both sides of his family. "But living with it, wrestling with it β€” that can be productive."

Malcolm Venable

Kindred, the 1979 novel by acclaimed science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, is many things: a mystery, a horror, a time-travel story, a fantasy epic, a slave narrative, a historical fiction, a love story. This groundbreaking work of genre storytelling is also now an FX series β€” a dramatic, long-overdue realization of Butler's work that fans thought they might never see. All eight episodes of season one will be available December 13, exclusively on Hulu.

"It's an American classic," says Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who serves as showrunner and an executive producer. An Obie Award–winning and Pulitzer-nominated playwright (Appropriate, An Octoroon), he received a MacArthur "Genius" grant in 2016. "People keep discovering it," he says of Kindred the book. "Octavia [was] super-thoughtful about the way she presents things, and ultimately is asking us to expand our imagination around the subject material."

That material is slavery, a chapter of American history that's been dramatized in shows including the 1977 miniseries Roots β€” still one of the most-watched series in the history of television β€” and the 2021 Prime Video series The Underground Railroad, an adaptation of Colson Whitehead's novel of the same name. Unlike most slavery stories, though, Kindred draws a throughline between the present and past, daring to make a modern-day Black woman experience the horrors of slavery via time travel.

Butler, who died in 2006, was the first sci-fi writer to receive the MacArthur "Genius" grant, back in 1995. Considered a visionary, she is credited with having predicted the Trump presidency in her 1998 book, Parable of the Talents, in which a boastful president promises to "make America great again."

Kindred is the first of her works to be adapted to the screen β€” a momentous occasion that honors Butler's pioneering legacy, expands the range of Black stories on TV and adds to the slate of sci-fi/fantasy series with Black-led casts that have emerged of late (Watchmen in 2019, Lovecraft Country in 2020).

"It's a new way of looking at slavery," says fellow executive producer Courtney Lee-Mitchell, who acquired the rights to Kindred in 2008. "It's about how things that happened in the past affect us to this day."

Kindred follows Dana James (newcomer Mallori Johnson), who is one day randomly yanked to the past β€” 1815, to be exact β€” and discovers a white child named Rufus drowning in a river. Disoriented and terrified, she saves Rufus' life via resuscitation, only to be confronted by the boy's shocked parents. Staring down the barrel of Rufus' dad's gun, Dana is flung back into her home in Pasadena, California, which she shares with her partner, Kevin Franklin (Micah Stock, Bonding), who is white.

As Dana continues to be called back and forth between antebellum Maryland and the present day (1976 in the book, but the recent past in the series), she learns that Rufus β€” the son of a brutal slave owner β€” is her ancestor. Unbeknownst to him, Rufus keeps calling on Dana to rescue him when he's in peril.

But Dana is aware that, without him, she won't exist generations later and must figure out a way to ensure he survives β€” like Back to the Future with a dystopian, morbid, historical twist. Every time she's called back, Dana is subject to the cruelties of the era, enduring subhuman degradation and violence.

You could spend years unpacking all the commentary, themes, insights and factual research Butler packed into Kindred, and many top-of-their-field scholars across disciplines have done just that. The book is a staple in college courses, and many scholarships and fellowships exist in Butler's name. In crafting the first season for television, Jacobs-Jenkins wanted to lean into Kindred's richest area of exploration.

"The major theme is definitely in the title," he says. "It's called Kindred. It's asking questions about what it means to feel kinship with someone. What is family? Are you your family? What do you do when you have both the oppressor and the oppressed inside you? What does it mean to be the progeny of unsavory relationships?"

The family dynamics central to the book are a bit of a red herring β€” the term kindred refers not just to Dana and Rufus, but to Dana and Kevin. Both grew up without parents, both are creatives and both become enmeshed in this nightmare, in the present as well as the past, when Kevin is pulled back along with Dana.

Butler said she deliberately made their relationship complicated; as much as Kevin hates slavery, he enjoys a level of safety and privilege in the 1800s that Dana does not. FX's Kindred, which strays from the novel a bit (the couple is married in the book, but not in the series) explores how these kindred souls become one.

"It's one thing to say, 'Your love is colorblind,'" Jacobs-Jenkins says. "But it's another thing to put your money where your mouth is. What does it mean to choose family? When you choose someone, what are you looking for them to be? Micah and Mallori have such incredible chemistry. I want to see how it feels and grows over the course of the story."

Johnson was tapped to play Dana just months after graduating from Juilliard. Landing the part was simultaneously a joy for the San Diego native β€” leading a premium series as a first job is a major flex β€” and a challenge.

"I remember feeling the weight of my ancestors' connection to the land and of what we were doing," she says. "I had to be careful. A lot of days I would come home and not understand why I felt sad and angry and frustrated. I will say, when the material starts to have an impact on you like that, you start to really feel like what you're doing is real."

Fortunately, Johnson and Stock were able to lean on each other during production. "On set," Stock says, "there was a great deal of attention to authenticity and taking care of each other β€” a sense of duty to Octavia Butler."

An Ohio native who now lives in Brooklyn, Stock had befriended Jacobs-Jenkins through the New York theater scene prior to auditioning for this role. He says playing a white man in a partnership with a Black woman thrust into slavery gave him rich terrain to explore as an actor β€” and prompted a lot of internal inquiry.

"There is a lot of history that Black people grew up with that, as a white person, we just don't know," he says. "What I loved about [Kevin and Dana's relationship] is that it was a meeting of minds, two people who want to be around each other and need each other."

And though he'd always considered himself an ally of people of color, the experience changed him, Stock says β€” he realized that being an ally is not enough. "Once your eyes are opened, they can't close again."

The role also taught him endurance, he says, and the value of "a story that's worth your time and energy. The exhaustion I felt at the end was the most worthy exhaustion I've ever experienced."

Both Stock and Johnson say everyone on the set in Atlanta sought to provide an emotionally supportive space to get through the material. But that mindset started long before shooting, as the producers considered how to handle Kindred's sometimes macabre moments. Butler's novel contains vivid depictions of beatings, torture and rape that can be hard to read, so Jacobs-Jenkins gave much thought to what he wanted to show and why.

Moreover, a vocal segment of Black viewers and critics have said they're exhausted with narratives about slavery altogether. Indeed, in a way, the success of shows including black-ish, Empire, Insecure and Atlanta could be read as proof of Black Americans' hunger to see more facets of their experience onscreen β€” beyond slavery or Civil Rights-era dramas. Black Twitter is alight every day with commentary from people tired of seeing Black trauma and with debates about what constitutes trauma.

With all that in mind, Kindred's creatives knew they had to use caution.

"It's tricky," Jacobs-Jenkins says. "I'm a descendant of slaves on both sides of my family." He grew up in Washington, D.C., a stone's throw from Maryland, where most of Kindred takes place. "So if I tell the story of my family, it's traumatic for someone. The bad question I keep getting asked is, 'Does the world need another show about slavery?' And it's like, why is there a quota on this work? It's difficult subject matter, but living with it, wrestling with it β€” that can be productive."

While producers were mindful of how to depict the physical and sexual violence in the text, Jacobs-Jenkins says that focusing on those elements misses one of Butler's central points. "The easy thing to do is fall into making it so much about physical violence. But this system perpetuated psychological and emotional cruelties β€” it's the way people's lives were ruined, or the way they were forced to survive."

By far, the most grueling parts of Kindred involve the wrenching choices Dana must make to keep herself and Rufus alive β€” the ways she must be subservient to Rufus' parents, the ways her time in the past makes her see her partner in a new, suspect way β€” even the ways she has to deal with other enslaved people who are willing to betray her to protect themselves.

"It wasn't just about someone chained to a tree and getting whipped," Jacobs-Jenkins says. But eliminating all the brutality β€” physical, sexual, psychological β€” would do the story a severe disservice, sanitizing both Butler's work and the truth about the acts people committed and endured on American soil. So he and his team moved forward with care.

"We didn't want to fetishize the body," he says. "We didn't want to make a spectacle out of the body being harmed. We were constantly trying to find different ways into the images and preconceptions we have about this time period."

Kindred weaves present and past together in ways that challenge the viewer not only to ruminate on the paradoxes in our country's narrative about freedom and liberty, but also to consider how we might fare in Dana's circumstances. In most slave stories, a life in bondage is all the protagonist knows. But Kindred's Dana is a modern woman β€” an aspiring screenwriter, a homeowner, a woman with agency over her body β€” who has to adapt to this realm and its daily atrocities.

Lee-Mitchell observes: "People always say, 'If I'd lived during that time, or during the Holocaust, I'd have done this or that.' But more than likely, you'd just be trying to survive. What would it be like if we suddenly found ourselves back in that time?"

Her question, as it happens, is part of the story of how Kindred came to be. Around 2006, Lee-Mitchell and her husband were in Philadelphia, pushing the stroller of one of their two kids, when they stumbled upon a block that seemed unchanged since the 1800s. She said as much to her husband, musing aloud how weird it would be to be transported back to that time. "My husband said, 'There's a book that is that very story,'" she recalls.

An independent producer at the time, she began working diligently to track down Butler's estate and secure the rights to Kindred, which she did by 2008. She'd initially imagined it as a film but after many stops and starts, she connected with Jacobs-Jenkins.

As it turned out, he'd been dreaming of adapting Kindred to the screen for a long time, too. He'd first learned of Butler through a babysitter who gave him one of her books. When the success of his plays led Jacobs-Jenkins to meetings in Hollywood, Butler's work was never far from his mind. "Before the Trump presidency, I couldn't get people to stop for five seconds to give a crap about who Octavia Butler was," he says.

But something shifted after 2016, he says β€” actually a few things, including the Trump presidency, the boom in Black stories, and even the mainstream success of Jordan Peele's Get Out.

"I think that really took Hollywood by surprise," says Jacobs-Jenkins, who was a consulting producer on Watchmen β€” another series that blends history and fantasy/sci-fi elements. "And whenever that happens, Hollywood's response is to try to make a million copies. I'm not judging the products of that reaction, but it does suddenly flood the market with a vocabulary around the themes. I'd say we're probably a happy beneficiary of that work. Is this the world catching up with the art? I don't know."

None of us will ever know exactly what caused the winds to blow Kindred to the streaming screen β€” given Butler's uncanny way of threading time together, it's possible she orchestrated it all from beyond. What is certain is that it's a story whose time has come, and it is sure to grip viewers with a nuanced view of a period in history that reverberates today.

"I want people to feel in the moment," Jacobs-Jenkins says. "The conceptual heart of this book is still quite powerful. Part of the game for us as writers is seeing how detailed and true we can make this love story feel over time, with all its complications. I want people to feel implicated in the moment, and to have the ideas Octavia was trying to say really sit in our laps."


In addition to Jacobs-Jenkins and Lee-Mitchell, the executive producers of Kindred are Joe Weisberg, Joel Fields, Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel, Jules Jackson and Ernestine Walker. Janicza Bravo directed and served as an executive producer on the pilot. The series is produced by FX Productions.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #12, 2022, under the title, "The Go-Between."

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