Hulu’s Black Cake explores how marriage, migration, and motherhood can shift one’s sense of self.
One of the most important aspects of any family recipe is its provenance—not only what the dish is, but where it came from. So what happens when the story of a beloved dish conceals profound pain?
In Black Cake, a new Hulu show based on Charmaine Wilkerson’s 2022 novel, the titular dessert (one of many culinary emblems of the Caribbean’s colonial histories) connects a woman named Eleanor Bennett (played by Chipo Chung) to the island where she was born. Decades after she flees her homeland, Eleanor dies quietly in California and leaves behind one final cake for her children. The gift comes with a series of voice recordings that challenge everything her daughter, Benny (Adrienne Warren), and her son, Byron (Ashley Thomas), knew about their mother. Through these posthumous messages, which also relay Eleanor’s coming-of-age story, Black Cake considers how marriage, migration, and motherhood can shift one’s sense of self—and how documenting those journeys can help recover some of what was lost.
In flashback, we meet a precocious girl named Coventina “Covey” Lyncook (Mia Isaac), the daughter of a Black Jamaican mother and a Chinese Jamaican father, who in the future will change her name to Eleanor. (In the book, Eleanor was born in a fictional country largely modeled on Jamaica, but the series makes the connection explicit.) After her mother leaves the family and the island, the teenage Covey finds solace in friendship, budding romance, and the sea. These scenes are beautifully shot, a montage of stunning ocean panoramas, bustling city streets, and immersive underwater footage. They also mirror the Southern California beach cities where Eleanor raised her children, a visual parallel that quickly establishes for Benny and Byron how these locales might have eased their Caribbean mother’s homesickness despite the demographic differences. These small connections between Eleanor’s childhood and her parenting—sharing her love of surfing with Byron, her black-cake recipe with Benny—amplify just how much of Covey she kept hidden as an older woman.
Like many mothers, Eleanor tells herself that she papered over the painful chapters of her life to protect her children from the truth. And the details of her departure from Jamaica are indeed harrowing: When Covey’s gambling father racks up massive losses, he forces her to marry a local loan shark in order to settle the debt; the arrangement sets off the chain of events that propel Covey’s escape from home. The series makes the horror of her marriage clear by painting a vivid portrait of her adolescent ebullience and what she’s forced to put behind her. Leaving the island means giving up swim practices with her best friend, Bunny (Lashay Anderson); baking with the family cook; and tender dates with her first love—all with no warning. In these early episodes, Black Cake underscores the pain this rupture causes Eleanor and traces how it reverberates in her children’s lives decades later. After the warmth of Jamaica’s wood and water gives way to the gloomy concrete of the United Kingdom, where she initially moves, Covey’s world dims; these are lonely years she spends receding into anonymity to keep herself alive. The saturation dips, the brass soundtracking fades, and the rooms seem to shrink.
Even in these duller settings, Covey herself lights up the screen, her commitment to her own survival as tenacious as the agony that follows her from Jamaica to Europe, and then on to the United States. As Eleanor leaves messages for her children that recount these experiences, she begins to drop the propriety that constrained her adult life and reconnects with the teenage girl she once was. Though the recordings are meant as letters to Byron and Benny, they end up helping Eleanor recapture the levity of her childhood—and, in a sense, re-parent her younger self, a strikingly expansive depiction of motherhood.
When the show turns its attention to Byron and Benny in the present day, it loses its momentum as it attempts to wring more drama from their storylines than the novel does. Because Black Cake is streaming on a platform geared toward U.S. viewers, emphasizing hardships such as racism in the workplace and dangerous police encounters might make the series feel more relevant to its audience. But juxtaposed with Eleanor’s story, Byron and Benny’s paint-by-numbers conflicts just aren’t as interesting, and the dissonance is deflating in a series that spends a good portion of its lengthy runtime with these characters.
The focus on the children’s contemporary woes also distracts from the show’s more urgent questions about the way that radically different environments shape the interconnected people who grow up in them. American microaggressions are well-trodden territory, but Black Cake really shines when it explores the complicated relationships that its Caribbean characters have to the island and how they pass those down to future generations. Whether in scenes of Benny baking her mother’s cake or flashbacks to Covey’s swim meets, the tastes and scents of Eleanor’s homes, real and imagined, are evoked with nostalgia-inspiring intensity. Even allowing for a few questionable accents, it still feels remarkable to watch a thoughtfully constructed drama that contemplates maternal identity through the life story of a Caribbean woman of Asian and African descent. Black Cake isn’t perfect, but it comes together beautifully.