Review: Hulu’s ‘Black Cake’

Hulu’s adaptation of Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut, “Black Cake,” delves into the intricate roots of a mysterious family tree. It skillfully navigates the journey of a family unraveling the complex and often tragic past of their mother, Eleanor Bennett, following her demise.

Eleanor (portrayed by Chipo Chung) passes away in Southern California, leaving behind a history unknown to her family, including her estranged daughter Benny (played by Adrienne Warren from “The Woman King”) and ambitious son Byron (Bashy from “Top Boy”). Eleanor’s will discloses an audio recording filled with long-buried secrets. Benny and Byron, not on the best of terms, discover a note instructing them to share a small black cake in the freezer when the time is right.

The series draws its name from a Caribbean dessert, reflecting its own intricate history. Like the tale told in “Black Cake,” this dessert, soaked in rum and laden with fruits, serves as a reminder of home for the Caribbean diaspora during holidays. Much like the series, the pudding reflects their colonial past and a concealed history many wish to forget.

Benny and Byron, raised comfortably in California with the belief that they are the children of orphaned Caribbean immigrants, find their lives disrupted. Benny, an artist entangled in a toxic relationship with her mentor, fears returning home and disappointing her seemingly perfect mother. Byron, a scientist combating racial discrimination, strives to rise to the top in his field. “Black Cake” challenges their understanding of identity, weaving a multicultural legacy that reshapes their present.

Through audio recordings, the series narrates the life of Eleanor, born as Covey Lyncook (Mia Isaac from “Don’t Make Me Go”). The plot unfolds as Covey, a girl of black and Chinese parentage, dreams of escaping her impoverished community. Forced into a tumultuous marriage, Covey flees her homeland, leaving behind a wedding dress floating in the ocean. The narrative shines in the 1950s and 1960s, portraying Mia Isaac’s compelling performance as a young woman navigating life with one eye on the past. “Black Cake” handles Wilkinson’s family history with sensitivity, avoiding melodrama while exploring complex historical themes.

However, the series falters when diverting from young Covey’s narrative. Modern threads featuring the Wilkinson family struggle with melodramatic performances and uneven writing. The show loses momentum without Mia Isaac on screen. Despite on-location shoots and attention to detail, the California landscape feels generic compared to the tactile portrayal of London and Edinburgh. Present-day scenes depict the repercussions of Eleanor’s truth, but Benny and Benji’s handling of revelations lacks sympathy, making their characters less likable.

Late-season revelations, while potentially keeping viewers engaged, may be seen as a cynical twist to propel the plot forward. Unfortunately, these revelations occur in the weaker, modern timeline, relying on dramatic fallout rather than illustrating their development.

“Black Cake” offers a delicate exploration of England’s colonial past, the transatlantic slave trade, and the deception faced by the Windrush generation. Each episode unveils a vignette into islanders’ history, united by one remarkable woman’s story. While centering on Caribbean immigrants, the narrative resonates with a broader audience, emphasizing the impact of self-identity when rooted in family storytelling. The adaptation gracefully navigates the complexities of the source material, skillfully balancing characters and their individual narratives.

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