As a young writer at UCLA in the late 1960s, Octavia Butler discovered the power of words, culture and politics, a discovery that would blossom into a series of seminal novels that laid the groundwork for Afrofuturism. But despite critical acclaim, at the time of her death in 2006 Butler was largely unknown outside science fiction circles. Now, as Afrofuturism has been popularized by such phenomena as the Black Panther movies, Butler’s works are finally arriving on TV, and in a big way.
In December, FX/Hulu broadcast an eight-part adaption of Kindred, Butler’s 1979 novel about a Black Angeleno who time-travels back to antebellum Louisiana to save her bloodline. It’s a curtain raiser for Amazon’s forthcoming “Butlerverse,” a lavish array of TV adaptations of the author’s often-interconnected works set to roll out over the next three years.
Fans say the recognition is long overdue. Shortly before Butler passed away at the age of 58, she was writing short magazine stories for rent money. But cultural shifts have prompted fresh interest in the work of past Black writers, musicians and artists who have mined science fiction for inspiration.
It’s all a long way from the bus journeys the shy teenager spent inventing otherworldly plots as she shuttled between her mother’s home in Pasadena, her favorite reading chair at the Los Angeles Public Library’s downtown location (which now boasts an “Octavia Lab” makerspace), and, in 1969, UCLA Extension — where, she later recalled, she gained the confidence to share her words.
In 2023, Butler’s vision of a grim but hopeful future will be on display through several adaptations, many helmed by fellow Bruins. Academy Award winner Viola Davis is producing Wild Seed — often described as the most Afrocentric of Butler’s novels — which will be directed by Kenyan-born Wanuri Kahiu, who studied film production at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television; New York documentary filmmaker Garrett Bradley M.F.A. ’12 is attached to Parable of the Sower, in which environmental catastrophe envelops the world in the year 2024; and Dawn, a post-apocalyptic fable, is being produced by Bruin Ava DuVernay.
Why all the sudden Butler love? “She was ahead of her time, setting some of her works in the 2020s,” says Ibi Zoboi, an award-winning YA novelist and author of last year’s Butler biography Star Child. “But now the times have caught up with her.”
Zoboi says Butler could be a tough subject (“She was awkward, not one for small talk”), but that her scientific thinking about the fate of humanity, along with her empathy, created a powerful message that permeated her works. “She wanted people to connect,” Zoboi says.
If Hollywood does its job properly, a new generation will connect with Butler, too.
Watch the official trailer for Kindred:
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.