‘Black Cake’ rises to the challenge of adapting Charmaine Wilkerson’s mystery

Adapting an acclaimed novel that earned praise from, among others, Barack Obama, “Black Cake” serves up a sizable slice of period drama, deflated somewhat by the central character’s less-interesting children. The mix of soap-opera elements and mystery still makes this Hulu production enticing, but not as unreservedly as it could and perhaps should be.

Counting Oprah Winfrey as a producer, the limited series is buoyed by star-in-the-making Mia Isaac (whose recent credits include “Not Okay”), playing the young Covey, whose tale is related by her older self (Chipo Chung), posthumously, via a series of recordings left behind for her grown children.

Thanks to her father’s financial struggles in their native Jamaica, the teenage Covey was being forced to marry a much-older man to whom her dad (Simon Wan) owed money, leaving him bearing the pain and shame of having “sold your little girl.”

When the would-be groom suspiciously dies on their wedding day, Covey flees to Scotland, then England, enduring various ordeals and tragedies as a stranger in a strange land during the even more overt racism and sexism of the 1960s.

Through her attorney (Glynn Turman), Covey – now known as Eleanor – shares all this as part of presenting her will to her daughter Benny (Adrienne Warren), who has been estranged from the family; and son Byron (Ashley Thomas), who understandably resented his sister’s absence, which included missing their father’s funeral.

Mia Isaac plays a character hiding secrets in "Black Cake." - James Van Evers/Hulu
Mia Isaac plays a character hiding secrets in "Black Cake." - James Van Evers/Hulu

While Covey’s plight, and the lingering mystery about what actually happened at her wedding, remains consistently engrossing, the present-day issues surrounding her kids – from Benny’s domineering boyfriend (Elliot Cowan) to Byron trying to find his place in the corporate hierarchy – prove more stilted and heavy-handed, making “Black Cake” feel as if it’s simply killing time until the narrative shifts back to Covey’s story.

Working from Charmaine Wilkerson’s book, showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar (who teamed with Warren on ABC’s “Women of the Movement” about Mamie Till-Mobley) nicely teases that out over the eight episodes, aided by the twists and turns that punctuate the story. The narration preserves the literary feel of the production, while revealing the heartbreak and regrets that Covey/Eleanor kept locked away.

“You can’t run from who you really are,” the mother explains to her children in voiceover. “Eventually, the truth will surface.”

Coming on the heels of another solid mystery in “The Other Black Girl,” Hulu has burnished its credentials as a platform showcasing diverse talent. “Black Cake” doesn’t possess the sort of consistency that would put it on the top tier of limited series, but the during portions featuring Isaac it rises to the occasion.

“Black Cake” premieres November 1 on Hulu.

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