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Black Cake: "We can be leads and plot drivers"

Our Elders sometimes shrink when we ask them about their past. They can recoil when we are inquisitive about what their lives were like growing up. For some, the memories are far too painful to disclose. So when Benny's (Adrienne Warren) and Byron's (Ashley Thomas) mother, Eleanor (Chipo Chung) passes away, through pre-recorded voice recordings, they come to realise that their mother hadn’t been entirely honest with them about who she was. 

Mia Issac as Eleanor/Covey | Credit: Hulu

Moving between present day and the past, Oprah Winfrey’s produced TV adaptation of Charmaine Wilkerson’s, Black Cake, follows a teenage Eleanor, known as ‘Covey’, fleeing from Jamaica. We follow Covey’s escape after a series of catastrophic events happen in her life. In the present, her children were none the wiser, up until her death under the impression their mother was an orphan. But in reality, Eleanor/Covey knew her parents and lied about her past.

Adapting a novel for the screen is not always easy, but when you have showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar in the driving seat ( Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale), the story is in a safe pair of hands.

The process of working with an author and turning a book into a screenplay can be complicated, but for Cerar it was a dream collaboration to work with Wilkerson. “When Charmaine came onto set, it really lifted me. It was the greatest gift”. Black Cake is one of Cerar’s favourite books so it was a special moment for her to work on the series, she enthusiastically tells The Floor Mag. 

The miniseries explores tough themes including grief, race, violence, and misogyny and Mia Isaac’s portrayal of Covey dazzles. There was an international search for the protagonist of the series and Cerar says the moment she saw Isaac’s self tape she exhaled in relief. “Everything that branches out is built from her [Covey]. She’s the soul of the series”, so the stakes were high. Wilkerson was equally impressed with Isaac, with the pair’s first encounter happening on set. “Mia was filming a tough scene and my eyes were starting to water because I was struck by the power of this young person to capture that moment,” the author exclaims. 

Mia Issac and Ahmed Elhaj as Covey and Gibbs | Credit: Hulu

The vibrancy of Jamaica is demonstrated by the set design, costuming and cinematography. Cooking was meticulously planned and on set there were consultants to make sure that the Caribbean black cakes that frequently feature, (which typically consist of fruits, rum and brandy) were made accurately and authentically on screen. 

A heartwarming theme in the miniseries is Covey’s love for the water. In her early years, she was a competitive swimmer and avid surfer with big ambitions. Her swimming abilities also help her out in tricky situations more than once across the series. There’s a longstanding myth that Black people don’t swim, but swimming is a huge part of Covey’s life and flips this idea on its head. Wilkerson says she never set out to do this when writing the book, but disclosed that in the early phases of writing, she found herself reflecting on unwavering self-confidence. The image that she landed on was two girls in the water, so she ran with it. Water underpins the series, not only for Covey/Eleanor, but for her children too as her son is an “ocean scientist.”

The hour-long episodes are an unsettling watch at times. Black Cake shares similar themes found in NBC’s intergenerational series This is Us, where secrets are uncovered and family and love are at the centre. To pin the series down to a singular category would be hard. It’s a family drama, but at the forefront there is ambitious storytelling led by “women of colour.” For Cerar, the series affirms that “we can be leads and plot drivers rather than the supporting characters in other people’s stories.” 

Rating - 4/5 

You can watch Black Cake on Disney+ from January 31st


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