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Hulu's Black Cake Tells a Story Devoid of Flavor

Marissa Jo Cerar's adaptation lacks the thematic richness of Charmaine Wilkerson's bestselling novel.
  • Mia Isaac in Black Cake (Photo: James Van Evers/Hulu)
    Mia Isaac in Black Cake (Photo: James Van Evers/Hulu)

    Black cake, a Caribbean iteration of the often-maligned fruitcake, is a traditional confection with an interesting history and process. A descendant of colonial British plum pudding, the dessert is a decadent holiday staple characterized by its density, dried fruit that is soaked for months in local alcohol, and depth of flavor delivered by its burnt sugar essence. It’s more than an island favorite; it’s considered a celebration of melding cultures thanks to the time and personalization that go into each cake.

    Knowing this, Hulu’s new dramatic series Black Cake offers tacit promises with both its title and ambitious approach to storytelling. Based on Charmaine Wilkerson’s bestselling debut novel, the eight-episode story of a family rocked by the posthumous secrets and scandals involving their late matriarch aims to be much like the cake that inspired it: a rich, complex, biting look at survival and how identity impacts general safety and prosperity across generations. Instead, Black Cake is a story so devoid of any unique flavor, not even a murder mystery in the middle of the Caribbean can save it.

    Created by Marissa Jo Cerar and executive produced by Oprah Winfrey, the series follows estranged siblings Byron (Ashley Thomas) and Benny (Adrienne Warren) who are reunited after the death of their mother, Eleanor Bennett (Chipo Chung). In lieu of a more standard reading of a will, the family’s lawyer (Glynn Turman) tasks Byron and Benny with listening to a series of recordings by Eleanor, which tell the long-concealed story of her very complicated past. Each tape covers a number of bombshells, beginning with the fact that her real name is Covey and during the earliest years of her adulthood, she was forced to marry infamous island loan shark Clarence “Little Man” Henry (Anthony Mark Barrow) by her shop-owning father Lin (Simon Wan). What’s more, she faked her own death to escape possible conviction after Little Man was fatally poisoned at their wedding reception.

    The show’s non-linear timeline shuffles the viewer back and forth between young Covey’s (Mia Isaac) years of escape and the present day, where Byron and Benny are navigating their own personal battles while grappling with their mother’s slowly unfolding truth. Covey’s story is further segmented within that framework, flitting from her more carefree years in the Caribbean to her years of hiding in Europe. The constant jumps are meant to emphasize the dramatic shift in Covey’s life sparked by Little Man’s murder as well as the impact this information has on her surviving family. What stands out more, however, is the inherent challenge that comes with this format: The viewer is never left in one place long enough to build real empathy or understanding, so the dramatic moments tend to fall flat. The stakes are watered down by our inability to really connect with any character or community beyond Covey, making it difficult to fully grasp the impact of any choice or event.

    And perhaps that would be fine if there were still a solid mystery or soap opera to look toward. Instead, the majority of the story’s intended twists and turns are telegraphed miles ahead of their arrival, eliminating any truly shocking moments. In a decent soapy drama, even this would be rendered forgivable by snappy dialogue, engaging performances and palpable chemistry. But here, the dialogue serves more as a means to guide the audience toward how they should feel about any particular revelation.

    This feels especially true for Benny, whose keen interest in her mother’s tale is compared to listening to a true-crime podcast in the first episode by her brother. While Benny might have a personal attachment that warrants her interest, the truth is, there isn’t enough intrigue or fresh perspective here to hook anyone else. Surprises feel obvious. Characters like Little Man and the elderly Covey herself are archetypes rather than actual people. There are more than a few convoluted details that seem to exist more out of convenience than as actual choices aligning with common sense (like, for instance, repeatedly fleeing to the one place where you will most certainly run into people you know when you’re supposed to be dead and out of sight). So, when the mystery surrounding Little Man’s murder or promises of more “shocking” revelations are repeatedly dangled in front of the viewer like carrots, it’s hard to drum up enough interest to bite.

    Black Cake also dives into identity a lot, from Covey’s experience navigating her homeland as a biracial Chinese-Jamaican girl to Benny’s journey as a queer woman. These themes produce the show’s best performances, with Isaac, Thomas, Warren and late-season arrival Sonita Henry injecting moments of welcome sincerity to the best of their ability.

    But those few moments of reprieve largely shine because of the engaging nature of the people portraying them and not the subject matter itself, much of which feels overdone in 2023. By now, audiences are well acquainted with the scene of the Black man suddenly surrounded by far too many police, at gunpoint. We’re familiar with scenes of sexual assault against vulnerable women of color at the hands of white men in power. We’re already inundated with stories about blatant workplace discrimination. Yet, Black Cake invokes these well-worn images to share a surface-level version of the Black experience. At this point, it’s neither shocking, angering, nor all that enlightening; ultimately, it’s forgettable.

    Of course, there’s been a soul-crushing level of desensitization that has rendered such images commonplace. But it also points to how much discussions of racism have evolved over time to become far more nuanced — so much so that this adaptation of a book published in 2022 still feels like it's behind the times. Trauma shouldn’t be off limits in storytelling, especially when those wielding the pen are drawing inspiration from lived experiences. But if storytellers are going to continue mining from collective community trauma for dramatic impact, they should at least use that space to say something new.

    Black Cake premieres November 1 with three episodes on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Shannon Miller is a cultural critic, editor, and podcaster who focuses on the societal impact of TV, film, music and advertising.

    TOPICS: Black Cake, Hulu, Adrienne Warren, Ashley Thomas, Charmaine Wilkerson, Chipo Chung, Mia Isaac, Oprah Winfrey, Adaptations