Zibby Mag

The Webby Award-winning literary lifestyle destination.

You Must Binge “Black Cake”

Sunday, October 01, 2023

How Hulu and MJ Cerar Got the Adaptation of Charmaine Wilkerson’s Bestselling Novel So Right

By Zibby Owens

I was lucky enough to binge-watch the entire Black Cake season the weekend before it aired. It was “for work,” so of course the kids understood as I put headphones on and cracked open my laptop as they did gymnastics around me. Usually when (if!) I watch movies or TV, it’s after they go to sleep. They were shocked by my brazen mid-afternoon watching. My daughter was like, “Wow, that show must be really good, Mom.”

It was. I couldn’t stop. It was frankly embarrassing. 

I’d interviewed Charmaine Wilkerson about her novel Black Cake when it came out (listen here). I’d recommended the book right and left. When I was asked to moderate the Q&A with Executive Producer and Showrunner Marissa Jo (“MJ”) Cerar at the premiere of Black Cake for Hulu, I felt like I’d won the lottery. Yes. Yes, I’ll make it work.  

The seven episodes I watched to prep for the interview were emotional and immersive. I held my breath. I said, “Oh no!” out loud. I covered my face. I laughed. I smiled. I cried.

The basic plot is that a 16-year-old girl named Coventina (“Covey”) is living a full, happy life in Jamaica as an accomplished member of the swim team with plans to take the competitive swim world by storm. She’s in love with a strapping young fellow, Gibbs, who’s crazy about her. She spends the afternoons with her BFF Bunny, swimming in the sparkling water in the afternoons. The only issues are 1) her mother left her and her father when she was younger, leaving a hole that could never be filled, and 2) her father, Lin, is a gambler and a drunk who, when the story starts, gets his family’s food store burned down by local loan sharks. Why? Lin, one of the few Chinese people in town, has borrowed money from “Little Man” and, desperate to stay afloat, offers up Covey’s hand in marriage to the much older, creepy, and terrible criminal who everyone in the area fears. 

Covey, justifiably, is horrified by the thought of being anywhere near this man, but also by the realization that her father has not protected her and, in fact, put her in harm’s way. She now has no one to protect her except her mother’s old friend Pearl who has worked as a housekeeper since the mom left. Another person who isn’t a fan of the upcoming nuptials is her boyfriend Gibbs, who begs her to come to London where he’s moving to become a lawyer.

The opening scene of the Oprah-produced series finds Covey racing through the woods in her wedding dress. We quickly find out it’s because Little Man has dropped dead at the wedding reception. Covey sees an opportunity and also fears recrimination for this, even though she had nothing to do with it. With her best friend Bunny’s help, she fakes her identity and escapes to London, while most of the village believes her to be dead.

What follows is a lifetime of adventures for Covey as she takes on a new identity and finds her way in London, Scotland, and the U.S..

Moving and poignant, it is just wonderful. Thought-provoking. Important. Immersive. 

The parallel storyline in the present involves Covey’s grown children and her lawyer, Mr. Mitch, as they listen to the voice memos she has left them, revealing a lifetime of secrets. We also delve deep into the children’s lives: Bryon, a Black ocean scientist in a white field, and Benny, an artist with an abusive ex who is struggling to find out who she is. 

By the time I finished the episodes and the past had caught up to the present, I was exhausted and exhilarated. So much happened over the seven hours. I felt like I’d lived another existence, although there were still a lot of unanswered questions. 

It was at that point that I reached out to the publicity team from Hulu to thank them for the thrilling, wonderful show, and sent over the questions I would ask MJ the next day. 

A note came back: “So glad you loved it! But there’s actually an 8th episode that wasn’t in the screener we sent!”

What?!?! Ohhhhhh. 

The interview, it turns out, was in the middle of Bryant Park’s Winter Village. Chairs were set up by the raised stage on which MJ and I sat. But the other side was a bar and then a restaurant, all under the same clear tent. I held my microphone close, exuded as much volume and enthusiasm as I could, and tried to pretend we weren’t being completely drowned out. I learned from MJ that she has a lot of secrets herself—but couldn’t wrestle them out of her in only 30 minutes!! A mixed race woman with adoption somewhere in her history, she was convinced she had to be the one to tell this story. 

MJ pointed out that black cake, the food, a spin-off of plum pudding that those in “the islands” made their own and perfected, was in every single episode. There was a lot of eating, drinking, cooking, and sitting around tables, listening. But there was also racing, running, swimming, searching, screaming, and more. 

Then I reread the original book. What had changed? What hadn’t? Aside from some of the characters looking a bit different in casting than they did in the book, there are many similarities. As MJ pointed out, though, episode 3, for example, was only a sentence in the book but an hour on screen. The screen version fills in so many details that, as a I reader, I had to simply imagine. 

I feel deeply attached to all the characters and want another 7 (or 8, ha!) episodes to follow to see just what happens next. 

Moving and poignant, Black Cake is just wonderful. Thought-provoking. Important. Immersive. 

Now excuse me while I go watch the final episode. I can’t wait to see how it ends. 


Stream Black Cake on Hulu—and check out our recommendations for more new book-to-series shows you should watch now.