'Kindred' creator wants viewers to 'question their assumptions'

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“If a ‘Kindred’ movie were 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 sound much like my book. 🇧🇷

It was yet another prediction by Butler that was spot on, though she was wrong about the format. Adapted by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins for FX on Hulu🇧🇷 🇧🇷Kindred” is neither a movie 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 his prolific writing, mostly science fiction novels, continues to resonate with our world more than 15 years after his death.

“Kindred” is Butler’s best-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 slave ancestor; she returns to the present only when her own life is at risk.

In a 1988 interview with literary critic Larry McCaffery, Butler said that “Kindred”, with its mix of genres, periods and pre-war stories, was informed by ideological debates she had during college in the 1960s, about even what point should slaves have rebelled against their masters.

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

The drama was well regarded, but it was Jacobs-Jenkins’ 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 main character, an enslaved woman, the play inspired critical acclaim and big ticket sales. In his review for The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that its success “seemed to confirm its author’s reputation as one of this country’s most original and illuminating writers on race.”

Even so, Jacobs-Jenkins remained committed to “Kindred”. In 2015, he convinced Courtney Lee-Mitchell, who owned the novel’s rights, that it should be a television series and not a movie as previously envisioned by other potential producers and even Butler herself. The decision to extend the story across multiple seasons drew some criticism. (All eight episodes of Season 1 are available on Hulu, but the series has yet to be renewed.)

However, Jacobs-Jenkins hopes that his expansion of the novel’s universe will encourage 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.”

In a video interview earlier this month, Jacobs-Jenkins spoke about his introduction to Butler’s writing, the motivations behind some of his changes to her story, and why he thinks television and theaters need more stories about slavery. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

When did you first come into contact with “Kindred”?

My relationship with Butler preceded my engagement to “Kindred”. I was one of those kids who read Stephen King on the playground for no good reason, and Ray Bradbury’s novels were also important transitional objects for me. I was 12 or 13 when I had a babysitter who went to Howard, who was also a black nerd. She told me, “You should read Octavia Butler.” So I started with your Patternist series. And when I got to college, I read about her in an African American studies program and I remember thinking, Oh, this person I read about for fun is important academically. It was also when I learned about “Kindred,” which was strangely one of my later performances of her work.

Before, when I was reading it, it still felt like a secret; it was good to be part of that weird underground. And now, it has been popularized in this gigantic way.

How did this adaptation happen?

Slavery is the stuff of my creative life. I remember obsessing over the visual work of Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon and Kerry James Marshall and wondering why they were so far ahead of the theater. So at that time, I said, I’m going to dive deep into these people and write a play based on my deep dive. I just inhaled whatever their speech was and tried to translate it into a theatrical space. And the truth is, my creative life is also driven by fandom on some level, and I remember rereading “Kindred” in 2010 and thinking, this is a TV show. It was a eureka moment.

I immediately started figuring out how to get the rights. It had been on option since 1979 because people were trying to make a movie out of it. And I was like, it’s not a movie. Because the whole book is about experiencing the passage of time and watching people transform themselves, witnessing their development, growth, decay, and changing allegiances. It took me six years to get the rights, and then my task became trying to translate it and finally peeling back the layers for people.

Speaking of passages of time, her novel was set in 1976 to coincide with the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. Why did you set the series in 2016?

Along the way, I became close friends with Merrilee Heifetz, Butler’s literary executor and his lifelong agent. One of the things she said to me was, “Octavia would like you to do this for now.” So I took it seriously. I think 2016 was that last breath of naivete about how we process the legacies of this racial regime that the country was founded on. Do you remember the day after Obama was elected, all of a sudden there was a discussion about a phrase called post-race? I remember asking, “What is this?” I also think that because people didn’t see the results of 2016 [presidential] coming up to the election, we suddenly felt like we were going backwards as a country. “Kindred” was also the ultimate metaphor for this.

Another surprising change was the inclusion of his mother as the main character. What inspired this storyline?

Merrilee also told me that Octavia referred to this book as one she could never decipher. This interested me because it is her most widely read and best known book, and she also referred me to her archives, which had just been cataloged at the Huntington Library.

I’ve read all the drafts of “Kindred” and there are a few where she’s experienced this mother figure. In her canon, she is obsessed with mothers. I don’t want to psychoanalyze another artist, but her relationship with her mother was very complicated. Merrilee once told me that she would say, “Octavia, I want you to write a memoir.” And she would say, “I’ve already written a memoir; it’s called ‘Kindred.’”

Unlike many other contemporary depictions of enslaved people on television and film, Dana is not alone. She has a community in each of her periods to help her. Why was this important to portray?

I think Octavia was obsessed with family. I mean it is called “Kindred”, and it is about making the familiar political. My approach was always to think about what she was doing and try to echo or expand on that universe – I took all my cues from her, except for setting it in 2016. At the same time, she was always trying to understand why tribalism exists, why genes are as varied as a concept, how they are wired to oppress people, and what the oppression is rooted in.

Dana has to make some tough choices for herself and often risks the lives of other enslaved African Americans to ensure that she continues to exist in the present. How did you approach bringing your moral ambiguity to the screen?

That’s an essential part of the book and I think that’s what makes Dana interesting. Most people are not participating in active insurgency, but are fighting in small ways to maintain their agency. This is driven home by Dana, who says to herself, “Wait a minute, to ensure my existence, I have become someone who can destroy or erase countless people’s existence. I want to be seen as good and I want to think that my goodness rubs off on Rufus too.” But playing both sides is not how justice happens. You end up being morally compromised in all your actions if you are still thinking about yourself. That’s the interesting challenge she has to negotiate.

Why did you think a multi-season arc was better for this story versus adapting it as a single-season limited series?

I just didn’t think you could do this book in eight hours. It’s about being with people over time and really feeling these tectonic shifts in their personality. I thought the idea of ​​squeezing six different actors into Rufus would seem like a party trick. I’m sure someone could have done that, but I really wanted to give us as complete a canvas as possible to tell the story.

Have you ever worried that the public will get tired of stories about slavery?

There’s this interesting quota that we all want to put on stories about slavery, and I think that question is often only asked of black creatives. There are thousands of shows on the air about rich white families sympathetically doing evil, and nobody puts a quota on it. I think it’s interesting that there’s this desire to police any narrative about a creative’s story. I mean, this is my story and my family’s story.

I also think people are worried, afraid or tired of the tropes and stereotypes that accompany this work and are waiting for the familiar scene where some female slave is raped or someone is tied to a pole or tree and whipped. But, in honor of Octavia’s book, I’m trying to find new things to talk about. We must never stop telling these stories, especially when people try to erase them from the history books.