In September 2020, 14 years after her death, Octavia Butler finally achieved one of her lifelong goals: to become a bestselling author.
“Some might say she was ahead of her time,” says Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. “And I feel like this is the time that she was ahead of.”
Jacobs-Jenkins is the showrunner—as well as an executive producer and writer—on Kindred, FX’s new series adaptation of Butler’s 1979 novel of the same name. (Jacobs-Jenkins was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2018, a MacArthur Fellow in 2016, and picked up an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2014.)
The book follows Dana, a Black 26-year-old writer, from her home in California to the antebellum South. Time moves differently between the centuries, and over the span of a few days in 1976—or decades in the early 19th century—an unknown force yanks Dana back in time repeatedly. Anyone touching Dana at the moment of her time travel—like her husband, Kevin, who is white—gets snatched back with her.
The FX series is the first of its kind, although several other Butler adaptations for the screen are now in the works: Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon are developing Wildseed for Amazon Prime Video, A24 won the rights to Parable of the Sower, and HBO is adapting Fledgling.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ show is a modern reimagining of Kindred, moving the “present day” storyline up to 2016. In this iteration, Dana (Mallori Johnson) is a TV writer new to Los Angeles, and she and Kevin (Micah Stock) have just started dating. Two nosy (white) neighbors, Hermione (Brooke Bloom) and Carlo (Louis Cancelmi) call the cops on the “suspicious activity” next door, and Dana’s long-lost mother makes a startling appearance. But the showrunner did his homework at the Huntington Library’s Octavia E. Butler Collection in Pasadena, and says any changes he made were “in the grain of her thinking and the grain of her impulses.”
Butler’s science fiction has often been interpreted as an allegory for slavery, despite the fact that she candidly told an interviewer in 1996 that, “The only places I am writing about slavery is where I actually say so.” In Kindred, though, Butler is clearly saying so: Dana finds herself on a Maryland plantation, which is inextricably linked to her family history.
Both the novel and the TV show veer away from Hollywood’s overwrought tropes about slavery and more toward a depiction of how the evils of the system pervaded daily life—not limited to the auction block or the whipping post. “I always say, again and again,” Jacobs-Jenkins says, “nothing has done more harm to our understanding of that time period than film and television.”
“I come from the theater and I’ve done a lot of work on slavery; in some ways, it’s been the material of my life,” he continues. “And I would say that I have a very strong belief that you should not aestheticize this violence. The sensationalism of physical violence often upstages the myriad ways in which slavery was actually far more insidious; it was a daily violence.”
Jacobs-Jenkins spoke to TIME about Kindred, the hidden gems of Butler’s archive, and how we’re all connected.
I read that you had been pitching a TV adaptation of Kindred since 2016, but it wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 that networks took interest.
Actually, it’s a little worse, which is I started pitching in 2010. But it wasn’t until 2016 when we were able to sell it. And since then it’s been a struggle to get it to the air.
What changed? Why was there suddenly interest?
I think it is concurrent with Octavia Butler herself mainstreaming. And 2016 was obviously a bit of a turning point socially, where it felt like we had backslid in some ways—which I think is one of the great metaphors of the book itself.
You’re almost time traveling yourself, given that this book is set in 1976. How did you update that story almost 50 years later?
It really was about trying to really make her themes and her artistic attack and the things she was concerned about more vivid to us. I felt like she was writing to her contemporary audience. And it felt more important to me to honor that than to put everybody in bell bottoms and have them listening to Motown. And I think it does help the ideas at play feel more immediate to people, and not like a museum piece or a historical thing at a remove.
Yeah, I knew it was going to be set in the present day, but it really felt so tangible. Speaking of: What major changes did you make between the book and the show? And why did you make those decisions?
Kevin and Dana in the book are married originally. And we decided to walk that back, partly because I wanted to see if, over the course of the series, we could really paint a super detailed, complex portrait of an interracial relationship that maybe becomes or ends in marriage.
And then, inspired by my spending time with Butler’s papers, I’ve expanded on characters who are quite minor in the book. And also a character of her mother, whose name is Olivia in our series, because this show is called Kindred, and it felt like this was an opportunity to really explore Dana’s—we’re all shaped by family and our experiences with family—and I wanted to give Dana a little more dimensionality around that theme.
You mentioned reading through Butler’s papers, and I’m wondering: What kind of research did you do in preparation for this?
She had a thousand scratch papers with ideas on them. And I watched them coalesce into the story we know. But also she had these false starts and these other drafts. And reading all that, I understood, oh, she was trying to do something so big in this book. And she said in her lifetime that she always felt like she never quite cracked Kindred—which is hilarious because it’s the book she’s probably most known for.
And I was interested in, well, what was she trying to crack that she felt like she didn’t crack? And could the show in some way try to help or expand on the ideas? Some of her drafts contained this interesting mother figure. It was just interesting to see her trying out different versions of this, and how some would get her farther than others, and how some reached dead ends. Just taking all that in, I just allowed it to help influence the way we wanted to expand things in the writers’ room.
So did a version of Olivia—Dana’s mother in the show—ever exist for Octavia?
Well, her name wasn’t Olivia. But there was a mother character who pops up in some of the drafts. What you realize is her original impulse was to talk about inheritance and genealogy and giftedness.
And I was like, ‘I think I want to walk that choice back.’ I want to see what it means if you really ask questions about why this is happening to her, and what might it have to do with her genes, her family, what she got from her ancestors, her forefathers.
In your talk with the Library of America, you said, “I hope it gets people to understand the ways in which we still live with the behavioral practices and economic practices that were cemented or even originated in this time period. Cruelty is cruelty: We’re capable of it at any time in history—even now.” How did you reflect that concept across these two mirrored time periods?
There’s definitely a duality happening in the present and the past, that I think—putting these things next to each other—you’re forced to see how they relate. I think people find that best expressed through Hermione and Carlo, who are these next-door neighbors who are operating from a place of fear, because they feel like they have reasons to fear based on what’s going on next door. But there’s this thing about surveillance happening and assumptions being made about them based on their own preconceived notions and about gender, about race.
She’s not safe in any timezone. In some ironic way, the safer she becomes in the past, the less safe she becomes in the present—and that’s in the book. That’s one of the ironies of the book.
The two points I was thinking of were the neighbors and this concept of surveillance, for sure, but also flashing immediately from overseer to police back-to-back was jarring—which I’m sure you intended.
Well, the police have their origins in these patrollers, who appear in our first episode. She’s just under threat—for reasons that disregard her truth or what she feels is happening, and that’s just wild. I think part of the challenge of being a racialized person is—I mean, that’s the problem with race: it just is a set of codes and expectations and prejudices that you’re just navigating innocently. You didn’t create them, you didn’t control them, and yet they somehow can be the difference between your living and not living.
How did you decide how to portray violence and how much to portray? You did so somewhat sparingly but smartly. Where was that line for you?
When you make it about these extremes, you lose the fact that this was a very banal system. This was a system that everyone participated in. And that doesn’t make it—just because they weren’t beating their slaves—that doesn’t make it any more justified or right. And I wanted to find some small ways to break the cliches or tropes that we associate with the genre.
I was really shocked by the amount of women who expressed gratitude that our hero was not sexually assaulted in the first hour. And I was like, ‘Holy crap.’ I’m a cis man and I had never understood that in the same way that I, as a Black man am waiting for someone to murder the Black man on stage, on-screen, people were bracing themselves for that kind of violation.
That changed the way I wrote things, where I was like, let’s really take care of our viewers. If people want to see that show, or that movie, where this sort of violence is front and center, that exists already. What else can we do to expand our understanding of what it was to live under this system? That was the guiding light for me.
What are you hoping that people take away from this show, that they leave with?
I’m stealing this from our actress [Mallori Johnson], who just said something so brilliant on-stage a couple days ago. She’s like, ‘This is about how we’re all connected, how everyone is interconnected.’ The dirty secret is that everyone was family in the past. Everyone on this farm is related. And Dana gets to move in and out of that web of connections. That’s what this phenomenon gives her.
But at the very least, we have to remember that we’re all literally connected, good and bad. No matter what you think about people or how your political opinions differ, or your gender or how you identify, we’re all cut from the same cloth. And that’s part of the reckoning we have to go through as Americans.
Correction, December 15
The original version of this story misidentified Kindred as a miniseries. It is a full television series.
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