Baking Black Cake

Baking Black Cake

February 1, 2024

The Writers Room

Black Cake showrunner Marissa Jo Crear and author Charmaine Wilkerson tell DQ how they partnered to create a show that blends family drama and murder mystery with a story set over several decades and in numerous countries.

A globe-trotting, decades-spanning murder mystery wrapped in a family drama, Black Cake begins in 1960s Jamaica where a runaway bride named Covey disappears into the water and is feared either drowned or a fugitive after her husband’s murder.

Lashay Anderson as Bunny and Mia Isaac as Covey

Then, in present day California, a widow named Eleanor Bennett loses her battle with cancer, leaving her two estranged children, Byron and Benny, with a flash drive that holds recordings of previously untold stories of her journey from the Caribbean to America. Narrated by Eleanor, these stories shock her children and lead them to challenge everything they thought they knew about their family’s origin.

Based on Charmaine Wilkerson’s novel of the same name, the series stars Mia Isaac (Covey), Adrienne Warren (Benny), Chipo Chung (Eleanor), Ashley Thomas (Byron), Lashay Anderson (Bunny), Faith Alabi and Glynn Turman, as well as recurring guest stars Ahmed Eljah, Simon Wan and Sonita Henry.

Showrunner Marissa Jo Cerar executive produces with Oprah Winfrey, Aaron Kaplan, Carla Gardini, Brian Morewitz, Wilkerson and Michael Lohmann. The series is a Two Drifters, Harpo Films, ABC Signature and Kapital Entertainment production.

Debuting on Hulu in the US in November last year, all eight episodes have now launched on Disney+ in the UK and Ireland.

Here, Crear and Wilkerson discuss the themes of the novel, how it was adapted for television and the global collaboration that helped bring the production to screen.

Charmaine, what were some of the themes and the topics that you wanted to talk about through the story?
Wilkerson: Of course, there’s so many, but some of the themes that were close to my heart that I saw being transferred very well to the screen were the power of the physical relationship, and the visceral connection between the person and nature – being in the water, being on the land – and how that imbued two young characters, the girls who were growing up on a Caribbean island, with a physical strength but also a determination, a personality. Of course, things go wrong for them, but they are able to face them in part because of that.

Chipo Chung plays widow Eleanor who narrates the story

Another is the diversity of faces and characters. One of the things that fiction can do for us now, which is a little different from before, is bring us a little closer to the truth. People always talk about wanting to see themselves in stories. Well, I’m happy also seeing people who are different from me. The real issue is I’d like to see more of the world that is around me, the people who are like me and the people who are not like me. Fiction actually brings us closer to that, in books and on the screen, than other kinds of communication often.

And then the other thing is just the story. This is a tale that has a little bit of everything. There’s a lot of drama, there’s a bit of melodrama, there’s love, there’s friendship, there’s deep lifelong loyalty, there’s betrayal. And of course, there are things that go very, very wrong. One of them is a murder.

Marissa, what was your interest in adapting the novel?
Crear: I read it before it was published and it all came together very quickly. It’s very rare that something like this, especially this big in terms of scope, comes together as quickly. But I just knew [I wanted to do it]. I’m not exaggerating, the moment I read the final word on the last page, I called my agent and I said, ‘I have to do this.’ Covey, the main character, is this Chinese-Jamaican girl, coming of age in 1960s Jamaica. She travels around the world and we get immersed in her entire life.

I just fell in love with her and her best friend. She has this amazing relationship with this young Jamaican girl, the swimmer named Bunny. The relationship moved me so much and I thought of 16-year-old me, desperately wanting to see myself in a story, desperately wanting a friend like Bunny who would be there for me no matter what. I just wanted to do whatever I could to bring this to screen.

Central character Covey is a Chinese-Jamaican girl coming of age in the 1960s

I loved the book so much, and Covey and Bunny are just two of the characters I loved. I love the diversity, I love the world. I was transported into this world in Jamaica in the 1960s in the Caribbean. I’d never been to the Caribbean until I went location scouting, and we were in Portland, where we filmed it, and then we filmed in Wales and Italy and my home here in Southern California, all over the world.

I wanted to tell this story that was big and splashy, and it was a family drama but also a murder mystery with women of colour as the main characters. We just don’t get those types of shows, and I wanted to do whatever I could to bring it to life. I was honoured that I was given the opportunity and I’m so proud of the hundreds of people around the world that helped see this through because it was a global collaboration.

This isn’t an entirely linear story. It starts in the present and goes back into the past, and there’s a narrator with Eleanor telling her own story. Was it clear how you would adapt the novel for television?
Crear: It’s very complex, in terms of the structure and point of view of the book. But for me, for whatever reason – and this happens when it’s just something you love – the story gods and the characters just start speaking to you. It wasn’t like you just take a book out and say, ‘Hi, I’m a writer. I can adapt this.’ I had to pitch a very detailed explanation of what I was going to do, how many episodes I thought it should be, what the stories were for each character, when the main plot points were revealed, how it was more than one season worth of material, and what the big storylines were for the three seasons I pitched.

I just mapped it out and immersed myself in the book and thought, ‘This is a family drama, but do not lose the murder mystery aspect of it.’ That really helped me to craft the structure and the in’s and out’s of when we’re in the past, when we’re in the present, and when is it time to meet certain characters we meet. We might meet them in the book very early on, but we meet them in the show later, and I just had to know that before I took it out. Then I pitched it and I put together a writers’ room after I wrote the first episode and the bible, and then we all came to expand the world and bring the dialogue and populate the worlds that Eleanor in the book might have summarised. She chose not to reveal all the details about certain moments of her life but we had to.

You have to really build the world, which makes it exciting for directors because each episode is like a movie. It really has a different location, different characters, different cast, different costumes for different time periods. It was hard – but it was easy because the material spoke to me so much that I just listened and the story gods, Charmaine’s book and the characters just helped me write them out.

Adrienne Warren as Eleanor’s estranged daughter Benny

Charmaine, how involved have you been working with Marissa to adapt your novel?
Wilkerson: I was tumbling down a hill to publishing my debut novel after having worked in other careers for years. What mattered to me and what I connected with was the emotional investment that I saw early on from Marissa in pulling out aspects of the story: the importance of identity, the diversity, the strong women and the beauty also of the story in terms of physical locations.

From the start, these questions would come along and I would fill in by answering questions like where did that come from? Was this imagination? What’s the research on that? Tell me more about what this person in your mind really does. I would feed more research than was necessary to Marissa and her team, I’m sure. So really, when it came to the pitch of the series, that was up to Marissa and Oprah, their whole team and taking what they knew to do well and putting it before people who were interested. I thank you, MJ, because you did a wonderful job, and you found a group that saw how much you could do with that story.

What were the logistical challenges of filming the series, with so many characters and locations to include?
Crear: The first was casting. Finding Covey, finding someone who could play the age, who had the actual ethnic make-up. They had to do an accent. She had to age, starting at 16 and going into her 20s. And we had to find another actress who could portray the same human being at a completely different stage of her life, so finding Mia Isaac and Chipo Chung was a miracle. People have literally thought that we CGI’d Mia and made her into an older woman. The casting was the first big obstacle, but it was like gifts from above.

Then filming in Port Antonio in Jamaica; it’s beautiful just being in the ocean but shooting in water is very difficult. You don’t know what the sea is going to do. We were filming with children, Mia learning to surf on camera – that shot of her surfing is her surfing for real for the first time – the water, the rain, the lightning, filming through all of that. Then we took a massive production and moved it to our soundstages in Wales. That is where the interior of Eleanor’s home is. That is where the interior of Covey’s home is. The exterior and the porch was in Jamaica and in episode five, we go to Italy and we were actually in Italy. We were also filming in Southern California for the exterior of Eleanor’s home.

For me, the biggest challenge was being in Wales eight hours ahead, editing, filming, casting, writing and trying to work with people in California. I’m still not recovered physically or psychologically from that. I would never recommend doing that. But I had to, it’s the job. So it was very difficult. It’s a miracle that it exists and that it’s so great. It was very hard.

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