TV Review: Hulu’s “Black Cake” Tells a Powerful Story About How the Past Affects the Future

Fate is a strange thing. That’s one of the underlying themes of Black Cake, a Hulu Original series premiering November 1st. Based on The New York Times-bestselling novel by first-time author Charmaine Wilkerson, the screen rights were picked up before the novel was even published. With executive producers including Oprah Winfrey and Marissa Jo Cerar, I went into the series with high expectations.

(James Van Evers/Hulu)

(James Van Evers/Hulu)

Eleanor Bennett (Chipo Chuna) went to her grave with a lot of secrets. Upon her death, Eleanor’s two adult children, Byron (Ashley Thomas) and Benny (Adrienne Warren), are told that their mother left them a black cake to share and a thumb drive containing seven recordings they need to hear. Each of them will force “B and B” to rethink everything they thought they knew about their mom, their roots, and how they live their lives going forward.

The series often shifts focal points, which will be Black Cake’s biggest hurdle in keeping a streaming audience engaged. After meeting Eleanor and learning a little bit about Byron and Benny, the focus seems to shift away from them. While the connectivity will reveal itself in time, it stumbles to feel cohesive.

Viewers are taken from present-day California to 1960s Jamaica to meet Covey (Mia Isaac), a 16-year-old swimmer who had to flee her home. Her story takes up the majority of the first three episodes, which will be released as a trilogy at launch before weekly episode drops. But from that point on, the episodes continuously spotlight different characters, different time periods, and different locations. Even in the present timeline, it jumps forward and backwards repeatedly, making what should’ve been the simplest part a little hard to follow.

(James Van Evers/Hulu)

(James Van Evers/Hulu)

I was reminded at times of This Is Us, a series that weaved together individual stories from members of the same family in a way that felt balanced. Having not read Charmaine Wilkerson’s novel, I can’t speak to how closely this 8-part series follows the book, but I will say that its narrative is probably best served as a novel. The series doesn’t seem to live up to the hype of its source material.

Black Cake is a slow-burn, taking its sweet time to deliver a meaningful story with resonant themes. Performances are powerful and a lot of talent went into the show’s design, but the narrative can’t find a hook to keep viewers wanting to come back. With the exception of fans of the novel, who might enjoy spotting all the foreshadowing throughout the episodes, I predict Black Cake will alienate much of its audience when the focal point begins to shift away from what feels established. I wanted to love it, but felt disappointed.

I give Black Cake 3 out of 5 cups of sugar.

Black Cake premieres with 3 episodes on Wednesday, November 1st, on Hulu. New episodes will be released individually on subsequent Wednesdays through December 6th.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).