The new Hulu series Black Cake takes a look at a woman who escaped a repressive life in her Caribbean home to establish a new life, first in London and then in the U.S. Its storytelling method, where we see flashbacks based on stories the character left her kids in her will, is an interesting one. But does an interesting storytelling method actually make the show better?
BLACK CAKE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A beach in the dark. A woman in a wedding dress runs through the woods, slips down some rocks, and runs onto the beach. She takes off the wedding dress and dives into the surf.
The Gist: Eleanor Bennett (Chipo Chung) has always had a relationship with the water, and likes to surf even though she’s getting older. After she wipes out on the board and hits her head, her sun Byron (Ashley Thomas), rushes to her side. That’s when the doctor comes in and tells both of them that Eleanor has a brain tumor. Byron tries to get in touch with his sister Benny (Adrienne Warren), but she doesn’t pick up or respond to texts. Frustrated, he leaves her a message telling her that Eleanor is fine.
But she isn’t fine; a year later, the siblings — at odds for years — are in the office of Charles Mitch (Glynn Turman) to hear Eleanor’s will. Part of the will is a flash drive where Eleanor has made seven recordings that tell the story of her life, the real story that her kids don’t know because Eleanor never really went into it with them. They have to listen to them together, with Charles, if they want to know about their mother’s life.
Her name was Coventina Lyncock, or Covey (Mia Isaac) for short, and she grew up in the West Indies. Things were great when she was a kid, but by the time she was about to turn 18, in the late 1960s, her mother had left Covey and her father Lin (Simon Wan) due to Lin’s gambling addiction. By this time, she and her friend Bunny Pringle (Lashay Anderson) were accomplished swimmers, and she was in a promising relationship with Gibbs Grant (Ahmed Elhaj), a relationship Lin did not approve of.
Covey’s life takes a big turn when Lin’s store is set on fire, a result of a loan he had to take from local crime boss Clarence “Little Man” Henry (Anthony Mark Barrow) and his brothers. In order to help pay off those debts, he gives Clarence his blessing to marry Covey. Covey doesn’t find out about this until after Clarence barges his way into their house and almost attacks her.
Of course, Covey is horrified; Gibbs says they should run off to London together, but Covey thinks she can go along with it until Lin pays off his debts. She also thought that their housekeeper Pearl (Faith Alabi), a friend of her mother’s and the only adult she could trust, would be on her side. But when Covey sees her making traditional black cake for the wedding, she thinks otherwise.
The wedding day arrives, and with it an opportunity for Covey to make the escape she so desperately needed to make.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Adapted by Marissa Jo Cerar from Charmaine Wilkerson’s novel, Black Cake has the tone of a show like Crear’s Women Of The Movement, but with more of a tone of a mystery like 13 Reasons Why, another show she has worked on.
Our Take: Black Cake is setting itself up to be two different shows: one about Covey’s life on the run as Eleanor, and another about how Byron and Benny deal with this new information about their late mother. Both have the potential to be riveting, as we were drawn in by young Covey’s story in the first episode. The only thing we worry about is just how disjointed things will get as the story moves back and forth from Covey’s life to her children figuring out what it means to them.
When we enter Covey’s life we see a little bit of her backstory, but there needed to be a bit more. Lin gripes after the fire that he’s still treated like an outsider even though he grew up on the island and established a life there, but then he tells Covey that he took out the loan from Little Man because he was behind on rent. We don’t really see just how his gambling cost him his marriage and what happened when Covey’s mother left them behind.
We’re able to forgive some of the missing pieces of the story, given Mia Isaac’s performance as Covey. She plays the teen as a strong person who tells her father in no uncertain terms just how he’s affected her life, but she also conveys the complicated emotions involved in going along with the sham marriage to Little Man in order to protect him.
There is also a mystery element that we’re not 100 percent sure works, as it seems that Pearl has inserted herself in the situation to the point where both Lin and Covey become murder suspects. Are we coming back to that story or moving on to London, where it’s pretty obvious that Covey is going to end up taking someone else’s identity in order to become Eleanor?
How Eleanor’s story affects Byron and Benny is the other part of the equation, but the first episode moves away from the two of them within the first fifteen minutes and doesn’t come back. At this point, all we know about the two of them is that Benny was estranged from her mother and brother for some time, but we don’t know why. It’s hard to judge whether this story is going to be worth the time we spend away from Eleanor’s story, because there just isn’t enough information there yet.
Sex and Skin: None in the first episode.
Parting Shot: Covey meets Elly (Karise Yansen), her roommate at the London boarding house she has found herself in after her escape. Eleanor’s voice over indicates that “to ensure my safety, unfortunately Elly had to die.”
Sleeper Star: We’ll cite Faith Alabi as Pearl, mainly because at some point what happened to Little Man is going to come back to haunt Covey/Eleanor, and we’re wondering if Pearl is going to then come back into her life at that point.
Most Pilot-y Line: There are points in the flashback to Covey’s life on the islands that don’t look like they’re from the late ’60s, and others that do. It comes down to hair and clothing that don’t always reflect the time, but we also acknowledge that it’s sometimes difficult to replicate that.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Black Cake works best when it concentrates on how Covey became Eleanor and managed to make a life for herself despite the secrets she kept. The impact of those secrets on the present day feel like more of a punctuation on the story instead of part of the story itself.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.