The Netflix teen drama “Blood & Water” became an instant international success after its release this past May. The show is the brainchild of a cohort of South African filmmakers, making the series the second Netflix original out of Africa.
The young adult drama follows a gripping mystery and portrays teen life in a contemporary high school in Cape Town. In a statement released after Netflix commissioned the series, an executive from the streaming service declared the company’s “excitement” in continuing to invest in projects from the continent. On a platform with little young adult content that centers the stories of people of color, especially women of color, the show and its success should excite viewers.
“Blood & Water” opens with a high schooler, Puleng Khumalo, celebrating her 17th birthday with family at home. There is an eerie twist to the party — Puleng, played by South African actress Ama Qamata, seems distraught. As the camera cuts to the gathered guests singing “Happy Birthday,” viewers will notice Puleng’s mother has set up a shrine at the table for a sibling who isn’t present.
A photo of a tiny infant, eyes squeezed shut, stands framed next to a three-tiered cake. Puleng’s twin sister was abducted from the hospital days after her birth, and the Khumalo family has celebrated her birthday every year since her disappearance.
The show, despite its high school age protagonist, deals with a serious world issue as its central plot — human trafficking. Human trafficking represents an especially pressing issue in South Africa. Human trafficking is on the rise in the region, and the country exists as a source, transit and destination country for trafficking victims.
Regardless of the specificity of the show’s central issue, the program’s characters and their stories are engrossing and relatable. This is evidenced by the universal success of “Blood & Water,” which reached the Netflix Top 10 chart in the U.S., the U.K., France and Kenya.
The Khumalo family is haunted by the idea that their daughter Phume might have been kidnapped by human traffickers. Soon this possibility hits far too close to home, as Puleng’s father is accused of selling his infant daughter into slavery. Over the next five episodes, Puleng’s quest to find her sister will be as desperately concerned with freeing her father from suspicion as it is with reuniting her missing sister with the family.
Puleng’s story is the show’s main strength. Wearied by the mournful 17th birthday gathering, Puleng sneaks away from home to attend a party with her best friend. After arriving at the elaborate house party, Puleng learns that it is being thrown in honor of a girl named Fikile.
Fikile is also turning 17, and Puleng is struck by Fikile’s features, which look similar to police sketches of how the missing Phume might look as a young woman. In almost an instant, the series’s protagonist finds the obsession that will provide the show’s momentum for the next five episodes — does Puleng have a plausible reason to believe Fikile might be her missing sister? What does this mean about Fikile’s seemingly perfect life?
Puleng’s desperate fixation on discovering where Fikile came from takes chaotic and sometimes catastrophic turns, pulling viewers in as a teenage girl seeks to solve the mystery that would shake two households. Though a missing sister is a highly specific story, Puleng’s mixed feelings of shame, longing and determination in regards to remedying her family’s past are universally relatable.
Even though the show has flaws, Puleng as a protagonist remains an empathetic character through and through. And, as a Black female lead, she is an outlier, particularly in the teen drama genre.
Netflix has had a highly successful batch of young adult series over recent years. Following in the steps of a Hollywood that lacks diverse stories and filmmakers, however, the streaming service’s programming has been extremely white.
The recent South-Asian, woman-led comedy series “Never Have I Ever” has been the exception, not the rule. Pop culture buzz about teen shows on the platform revolves around series such as “Stranger Things,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Riverdale” and “Sex Education.” All of these shows feature white leads and casts that have no more than one non-white principal character.
“Blood & Water,” with its Black female lead and Black woman-led directorial team and writers’ room, is a victory for those who have advocated for POC representation throughout the on- and off-screen filmmaking process. Importantly, the show brings a perspective that has long been left out of the contemporary young adult drama genre — that of a Black female lead, especially in a non-Western context.
Viewers will find themselves sinking into the alternating drama, hope and seduction that the show offers. A secondary, titillating plot line of “Blood & Water” is the ongoing affair between Fikile, star swimmer, and her school coach, Chad.
This unexpected storyline hikes up the maturity of the drama even further, and the urgent immorality of the relationship will intrigue older viewers less interested in the classic plot tropes of fighting over a love interest and catty peer rivalries.
The sexual orientation of one of the series’s leading characters, Fikile’s close friend Chris, played by Arno Greeff, illustrates the show’s commitment to representing a diverse range of identities and experiences. Chris identifies as pansexual, and juggles male and female love interests throughout the six episodes.
The first couple of episodes in the series explore the class dynamics and manipulation of social capital at Parkhurst High School. The set-up of a wealthy, popular swim star competing against a brainy scholarship recipient in a school election for “head girl” is thought-provoking, critiquing the elitist setting of the show itself from the very beginning.
Wendy, an opinionated Parkhurst student who heads the school magazine, approaches the election through the angle of a privileged popular kid getting student government opportunities handed to her, versus a well-deserving but overlooked underdog. This tension sputters out after the election concludes in Episode 3, but would be a worthwhile theme for the show to pick up again in its second season, announced last month.
Like most young adult dramas, “Blood & Water” has its cringe-worthy moments. The dialogue, particularly in the show’s first couple of episodes, occasionally rings cheesy and unrealistic. Frequent on-screen text bubbles (complete with GIFs and emojis) occasionally detract from the otherwise fluid pacing of the episodes.
Overall the writing is solid, and Puleng and Fikile, the potential-sisters at the show’s helm, are genuinely intriguing characters. Puleng’s risky quest for the truth is thrilling, and Fikile’s surface-only facade of perfection is enchanting. The sky-high stakes of the show’s central mystery will keep viewers engaged for Season 2. The season ends on a cliffhanger, so the story is far from finished.
“Blood & Water” is an accomplishment for elevated storytelling in the young adult genre and for female artists of color, who are underrepresented in the filmmaking industry. The remarkable success should hail greater investment in African filmmakers by Netflix and Hollywood at large. And it will hopefully illustrate that coming-of-age stories from non-Western or non-white perspectives resonate around the world.