Far be it from me to question the wisdom of the powerful Oprah Winfrey – her name appears above the door of this sumptuous new series, co-produced by her company – but Black cake (Disney+) is a high-profile and ultimately disappointing melodrama.
Based on the bestselling novel by Charmaine Wilkerson, it is a murder mystery wrapped in a family saga. In present-day California, two estranged siblings receive a batch of recordings from their late mother, telling them the story of her life – and are shaken by the shocking secrets they contain. We’re talking about identity theft, runaway brides, rape, adoption and fatal poisoning. Well, thank you, mom. We just wanted to know who left the fancy dishes.
Spanning six decades while crossing the Atlantic, Black Cake strives to be a sprawling, multi-generational epic, but ultimately ends up becoming a giant soap opera. The kind of indulgent, sentimental heartthrob that Americans might appreciate, but that we cynical Brits tend to balk at.
The story is painted in broad strokes. The men are mostly monstrous. Women are holy. The nurses are good. Nuns are bad. Throughout it all, the expository narration runs amok, telling viewers what to think. The old maxim “show, don’t tell” clearly hasn’t reached Oprah land.
Themes of mixed ancestry, racial identity, and buried trauma are quite delicate. Some performances are impressive, notably that of teenager Mia Isaac in the role of the luminous young heroine. However, this eight-parter cannot help but fall back into a bland cliché. Well-meaning but weak, he sees the world through a soft-focus lens. The scenes set in London in the 1960s make Call the Midwife seem like a social realist.
Attempts at contemporary resonance are clumsy. Police racism is being put to the test. Cultural appropriation and cancel culture are seriously discussed at dinner parties. Characters use phrases like “internet talk” with a straight face. A wife says to her husband, “Your mother overcame so much and your father was a civil rights lawyer, but you don’t even have the courage to fight against what is clearly discrimination in the workplace?” The script is not what you would call subtle.
The titular black cake, we were repeatedly told, is a rich, festive recipe that mixes Caribbean ingredients with British colonial influences. The series that bears his name is a heavy, sickly pudding.
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