Over three decades of writing, three book series, and a handful of standalone novels and short stories, Octavia Butler kept exploring the same concept, over and over. And yet she never let it limit her. She could have been a cliché: A black writer obsessed with slavery, and doggedly returning to the idea throughout every one of her dozen novels. But as a science-fiction writer—one of only a tiny handful of established black novelists in the field, throughout much of her career—she found expansive, creative, frequently bizarre new windows into the things that interested her. Only one of her books, 1979’s Kindred, deals directly with race-based slavery as seen in American history; the rest largely approach it from complicated metaphorical angles. But Kindred isn’t just her most literal approach to slavery, it’s also her best book, her most self-contained, her most propulsive, and her most approachable. And for many reasons, it’d make a terrific film.
What seemed to interest Butler most about slavery was the complicated conflict between mutual interdependence and power imbalance. Time and again, her books set up characters who need each other on a fundamental level: immortals who can’t relate to anyone but each other, alien symbiotes who need human partners to live, servitors who can’t survive without a vampire’s blood, diseased mutants with an uncontrollable impulse to seek out and infect others. In each case, one character (or species, or race, or collective) has significant, usually overwhelming control over another, which leads to power abuses, hollow self-justification, and atrocity. The individual books often have unsatisfying, abrupt ends; Butler’s strength was in establishing fantastic, elaborate worlds, then closely exploring the feelings of rage, helplessness, desperation, and betrayal that come with complete dependence on an owner.
But Kindred leaves the mind control, apocalypses, shapeshifting, and vampirism behind, in favor of a more familiar world. Butler’s version of the antebellum South is so familiar, in fact, and so recognizably and vividly drawn, that Kindred is her only book that’s typically shelved as literary fiction instead of science fiction—even though it’s a time-travel novel. The protagonist, Dana Franklin, is a 26-year-old black writer living in 1976 California with her white husband Kevin when she inexplicably finds herself standing by a river, watching a white child drowning. Once she saves him, his father arrives in a panic and points a gun at her, whereupon she reappears in her own home, in the blink of an eye. Over the course of several similar incidents, encountering the same child at steadily progressing ages, always in the midst of a life-threatening event, she comes to realize she’s being yanked back in time and across the country to 18th-century Maryland. The child she saved, Rufus Weylin, is an ancestor of hers, the spoiled, selfish, casually racist son of a plantation owner. Somehow, she’s pulled to him whenever his life is significantly in danger; it seems to be her responsibility to keep him alive until he can father the child who will continue her line. But even once she’s rescued him from the latest immediate danger, she doesn’t return home until her own life is threatened.
That means she keeps getting stuck, sometimes for months at a time, on a plantation where her skin color and gender put her at constant risk; she can be brutally beaten or sold for any reason, including speaking too frankly, looking at a white person too boldly, or just being caught on the wrong side of the Weylins’ caustic family dynamic. Rufus and his parents are unsure what to make of Dana, given her supernatural appearances and disappearances, but they’re fundamentally incapable of seeing past what their society has taught them about race relations, and even their awe of her comes with contempt, and constant attempts at dominance. And so Kindred sets up one of those knotty dependence problems that characterize Butler’s work: Rufus and Dana need each other to survive, but he has far too much power over her, and his ignorance and vindictiveness make him dangerous, and impervious to reason. Kindred is a harsh, unflinching story about the specific abuses of American slavery, but it’s also a potent metaphor about majority power: the shriveling of empathy and humanity it causes in its wielders, the emotional toll it takes on its victims. As a story, it works equally well in its specifics and in its extension to other, more modern forms of coercion and control.
Kindred’s brilliance, though, is in couching all these messages in a dynamic, rapidly escalating story that moves briskly on the page and would move equally briskly onscreen. Most of Dana’s rich characterization is expressed through her words or actions, rather than through internal monologue. Some of Butler’s books, like Imago, are much more internal, while others, like Parable Of The Sower and its sequel, Parable Of The Talents, are diaries looking back on events. Kindred is blunt by comparison, but its action is almost always focused around immediate crisis, and it takes place in the moment rather than in retrospect. And while Dana is careful about what she says or admits to Rufus, who takes careful managing, she’s still a typical Butler heroine: smart, stubborn, valiant, and proud, but oriented toward positive action, and liable to protect others without thinking about her own safety first. Over and over throughout the book, what she does in extremis becomes more important than what she thinks afterward. And in cases where she does need to get across the conflict between how she behaves and how she feels, Kevin makes a perfect sounding board. A great actress could bring across most of her inner conflicts physically, but where nuance is needed, there are always solutions in dialogue; it would never be necessary to fall back on clunky voiceover or exposition.
And the film version would want to get in some of the nuance. Kindred’s depth comes from Dana’s slave life, as she tries to balance her safety with her feelings of responsibility toward all the slaves who don’t have her last-ditch escape route back to the 1970s. One of the most compelling and daring threads running through the book is Dana’s frustration with how easily the plantation system beats her down and pushes her into a slave mentality, where she’s grateful for even small freedoms and kindnesses, and willing to meekly, quickly drop her modern-day ideas of liberation and racial equality in order to escape agonizing punishment. She’s even willing to counsel other slaves against escape, since in her mind, the risks outweigh the vanishingly small likelihood of success. Butler rivals Song Of Ice And Fire author George R.R. Martin in her skill at setting up ugly choices, miscarriages of justice, and infuriating ironies—and using them to spark strong emotion in her characters, and in her fans.
There’s a certain amount of flexibility in Kindred as a story. Since the key parts are Dana’s characterization and the escalating structure—each new trip into the past puts Dana in more danger, as the Weylins learn how to control her, and she learns to take lethal risks to preserve her independence and humanity—there’s plenty of room for stylistic interpretation, for a gentler or more aggressive approach. Kindred could work equally well as a flashy, stylistically jittery bigger-budget picture like Looper, or a more intimate, personal film like Somewhere In Time. It doesn’t need to be modeled after other time-travel movies, either; historical features like Glory and Atonement show extreme ends of the different visual scales that could be involved, based on how expansive a director wanted to get in showing the scope of the Weylins’ world. Apart from a few scenes, the whole movie could be confined to claustrophobic interiors to emphasize how trapped Dana feels. Alternately, it could be opened up to a Days Of Heaven-esque reverie comparing the characters’ emotional and societal limitations with the wide-open scope of plantation life. (Just as long as it doesn’t end up with the soft-focus, vanilla melodrama of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which died on the screen, lacking energy or conviction of any kind.)
I’ve always pictured Angela Bassett as Dana. Bassett isn’t 26, but there’s no reason Dana needs to be so young; her choices are mature, unbudging, and at times maternal in a way that goes far beyond her stated age. And Bassett has the gravitas and the ability to switch between human warmth and sealed-off coldness that the part requires. Possibly more than anything, Dana needs to feel sympathetic, vulnerable, and human to the viewers, who get to see her at her best, and needs to become impregnable and inaccessible to the Weylins, who push her to be her worst. But a younger actress with the right chops could also pull off the role: Zoe Saldana has the right mixture of openness and personal drive. At this point, either actress could use a role this meaty and central and satisfying.
Which suggests a final reason Kindred should be brought to the screen; too few American movies star black women, or give them roles outside a few limited stereotypes. And too few American movies tackle racial issues, which naturally tend to be polarizing. But in Kindred—as with so much of her other work—Butler found a way to decontextualize modern race relationships, to put them safely on a lift so she could tinker under the hood. By couching her story in the past, she was able to examine the present without activating knee-jerk defensive reactions. She often did the same thing by moving her stories into the future, but still looking at universal human emotions. She deserves a much broader audience, and that broader audience deserves her intelligence, her empathy, and all the insight that came with exploring an idea from every possible angle over the course of half a lifetime.