‘Kindred’ Creator Wants Viewers to ‘Question Their Assumptions’

In his TV adaptation of the Octavia Butler novel, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins changed parts of the story but kept the author’s focus on “making the familial political.”

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By Salamishah Tillet

“If a ‘Kindred’ movie is ever made, I wouldn’t be involved,” Octavia Butler wrote in a letter in 2000. “It won’t be my movie, and I suspect it won’t look much like my book.”

It was yet another Butler prediction that was mostly on target, though she was wrong about the format. Adapted by the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins for FX on Hulu, Kindred” is neither a film nor a completely faithful interpretation of the novel. But it comes at a time when there is more interest in Butler’s body of work than ever before, and in how her prolific writing, mainly science fiction novels, continues to resonate with our world more than 15 years after her death.

“Kindred” is Butler’s most well-known and often-taught novel. Published in 1979, it tells the story of Dana Franklin, a 26-year-old African American writer who repeatedly and unexpectedly travels from 1976 to a mid-19th-century plantation in Maryland. Each time Dana arrives in the past, she finds herself saving the life of Rufus Weylin, her white slaveholding ancestor; she returns to the present only when her own life is at risk.

In a 1988 interview with the literary critic Larry McCaffery, Butler said that “Kindred,” with its blend of genres, periods and antebellum histories, was informed by ideological debates she had during college in the 1960s, about the extent to which slaves should have rebelled against their masters.

Knowing this, Jacobs-Jenkins sought to capture those tensions while updating the story to convey the complexity of our post-Obama racial reality. A lifelong Butler fan, he wanted to turn “Kindred” into a television series as far back as 2010, when he debuted his first full-length play, “Neighbors,” at the Public Theater.

The drama was well regarded, but it was Jacobs-Jenkins’s 2014 Obie-award-winning play, “An Octoroon,” that established him as one of America’s most exciting young playwrights. A satirical adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s “The Octoroon,” a 19th-century melodrama about the tragic love story between a European-educated white plantation owner and the play’s titular character, an enslaved woman, the play inspired critical raves and hot ticket sales. In his review for The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that its success “seemed to confirm the reputation of its author as one of this country’s most original and illuminating writers about race.”

Even then, Jacobs-Jenkins remained committed to “Kindred.” In 2015, he persuaded Courtney Lee-Mitchell, the rights holder of the novel, that it should be a television series and not a movie as previously imagined by other potential producers and even by Butler herself. The decision to stretch the story over multiple seasons has drawn some criticism. (All eight episodes of Season 1 are available on Hulu, but the series has not yet been renewed.)

Nevertheless, Jacobs-Jenkins hopes that his expansion of the novel’s universe encourages more people to discover Butler’s writing for themselves.

“After watching this, I want people to question their assumptions about what they think they know about history, about themselves,” he said. “I want them to read Octavia’s work.”

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