Hulu’s Oprah-Produced Mystery ‘Black Cake’ Is Most Enticing When It Looks Toward the Past: TV Review

We all keep things to ourselves, secrets that, if brought to light, could harm — or even shatter — us or those we love most. While many people have only a few personal confidences tucked away in their hearts, others envelop themselves in a lifetime of lies to survive. Based on Charmaine Wilkerson’s New York Times best-selling novel and adapted for television by Marissa Jo Cerar, “Black Cake” is an eight-episode odyssey stretching from Jamaica’s shores to Scotland’s glens. The series tells one young woman’s story of survival and perseverance whose circumstances and choices reverberate into her children’s lives a generation later.

A beautiful and gutting mystery drama led by rising star Mia Isaac, “Black Cake” is a thoughtful tapestry of what we conceal so we might remain whole. The show opens in the dark of night in the late 1960s. Covey (Isaac), a distressed 17-year-old girl, runs toward the Caribbean Sea, the train of her white bridal gown dragging in the sand behind her. In the present day, a widow, Eleanor Bennett (Chipo Chung), observes the thunderous waves on a California beach before walking into the Pacific Ocean and letting herself be overcome by the water.

Following her death after a cancer diagnosis, Eleanor’s estranged children, Byron (Ashley Thomas) and Benny (Adrienne Warren), are summoned by attorney Charles Mitch (Glynn Turman) to go over their mother’s estate. Instead of paperwork to sign, Mitch produces a flash drive containing seven recordings of Eleanor recounting the true origins of her life and her journey from a lush island to America. A tale of murder, secrets and revelations, Eleanor begins her story by revealing her birth name, Covey Lin Cook, a boisterous swimmer born in Jamacia to a West Indian mom and a Chinese dad. Covey spends carefree days swimming with her beau Gibbs (Ahmed Elhaj) and best friend Bunny (Lashay Anderson) until her future is traded to clear her father’s debts.

Across the episodes, all named for versions of the woman Covey would become, Byron and Benny listen to their mother, who had been known for her reticence and grace, unveiling devastating pieces of her life that she had long buried. With rapt attention to Eleanor’s narration, the siblings begin to understand how her trials and tribulations are directly linked to their own hopes, dreams and missteps.

“Black Cake” is most compelling when looking toward the past. With her Jamaican lilt and captivating expressions, Isaac delivers an incredible performance. Covey’s transformation from a bold teen to an isolated young woman with few options keeps the audience engaged, and eager for the next piece of the puzzle. The vibrancy of 1970s Jamaica and the cold, wet isolation of the U.K. come to life in the limited series. Also, the mystery surrounding the demise of Covey’s gangster husband, Clarence “Little Man” Henry (Anthony Mark Barrow), makes for alluring television.

The sharpness of “Black Cake” slips only when the narrative lingers too long in the present, shifting away from Covey’s point of view. Byron and Benny are decent characters with great actors embodying them. Yet, their grievances pale in compression to Covey’s evocative experiences. Episode 4, “Mrs. Bennett,” recounts the event leading to Benny’s estrangement from her parents and brother. Still, the character is more annoying than sympathetic, leaving the viewer eager to return to Covey’s perspective. This isn’t to say that Benny and Byron’s paths don’t address important themes. However, had “Black Cake” remained centered on the past, it likely would have made for a better series overall.

Still, even in unpacking Byron and Benny’s frustrating decisions, “Black Cake” beautifully illustrates how one woman’s secrets and choices can reverberate across time, even altering the lives of those who seemingly had no connection to Covey or Eleanor. More than just a historical drama with a sliver of murder mystery, “Black Cake” is a rarity that vividly showcases a blend of identities centering on a Black woman. Eleanor’s past is a swirl of betrayals, defining who she became. Like the cuisine it’s named for, the series is a blend of cultures brought together to make something magnificent and complex.

The first three episodes of “Black Cake” premiere Nov. 1 on Huluwith new episodes dropping weekly on Wednesdays.