Barry Jenkins on The Underground Railroad: 'This show damn near killed me'
The Oscar-winning filmmaker talks to EW the challenges that came with adapting Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a limited series on Amazon Prime Video.
When Barry Jenkins' second feature film Moonlight won big at the 2017 Oscars, many thought of it as a sea change for not just the awards show, but for films centered on Black people. For too long, most projects considered prestige and starring Black actors mined from the most painful parts of Black history, but here was this modern queer love story between young Black men that finally captured the attention of the mostly white, mostly male institution. Wouldn't Jenkins' next announced project being something involving American chattel slavery feel like a regression to some?
The filmmaker, whose limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad premiered Friday on Amazon Prime Video, instead saw it as a valuable opportunity to explore the aspects of the antebellum south glossed over or erased from textbooks. "This period in American history has kind of been left by the wayside as far as arts and letters go. This is pre-photography, this is pre-Black folks having the legal right to own property, to read, I mean so many different limitations," Jenkins laments. "So the history of this time, there almost isn't any authentically recorded history, certainly not history authentically recorded by Black folks."
Thinking back four years ago, when he was pursuing the project, "I felt like, coming off the stage and winning Best Picture and all those things, when am I ever going to have more capital than I have right now to do a story that I believe deserves the same capital as Star Wars, as The Avengers? It felt like the appropriate thing to do," Jenkins declares.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, played by newcomer Thuso Mbedu, "a heroine who's taken from the actual lived experience of enslaved people, enslaved African-Americans," explains the creator, "and yet Colson does this beautiful thing where because he's taken this almost sci-fi approach to this period in American history, the width, the expanse of what she undergoes is... it's not Alice in Wonderland, but it kind of is—but rooted in some real sh–."
With the help of fellow captive Caesar (Aaron Pierre), Cora escapes the brutal plantation she's lived on all her life, and hitches a ride on the Underground Railroad, which in the reality of this story is an actual subterranean transport system there to assist runaways. From there, Jenkins pitches the series as an adventure, adding "because we're roadshow, the cast is ginormous, there are so many people in the show, so many roles as Cora progresses from state to state."
The first time showrunner also clarifies that the project builds off the precedent established both on TV and in film. "[It's] a discursive art form, and so this show doesn't exist in isolation. It's in conversation with the work Steve McQueen did when he made 12 Years a Slave, it's in conversation with the work Gordon Parks did when he originally adapted Solomon Northrup's autobiography. It's also in conversation with Roots, which is still either the highest or the second highest-rated episode of television in the history of Nielsen tracking," says Jenkins. "Because of that, the images have a certain responsibility to have fidelity to the experience as we build on visual representations of this time."
According to Jenkins, another exciting element of the story is how it "presented this opportunity to work in so many different genres, but that are kind of housed in the same story just as one woman's journey." While the beginning of the show invokes different kinds of horror, from folk to psychological, the writer-director calls the Indiana Autumn portion a romantic drama. "And then you get to Indiana Winter, and somehow you stumble into an action film." It's the reason why the filmmaker felt strongly about making Whitehead's book a series, and not a movie.
In the time between the show's announcement and production, Jenkins had made the critically acclaimed If Beale Street Could Talk (which netted Regina King an Oscar), and the world changed. With Donald Trump being elected president using the slogan "Make America Great Again," the director's motivations surrounding The Underground Railroad began to slightly shift. "I felt like it was quite urgent to show the greatness of the America that was, to really unpack and excavate I feel the horror, the indifferent horror in that statement. In yearning back for a time when someone like me simply would not even be allowed to create art," he asserts.
The cast and crew had shot most of the show before the pandemic shut down production, and news thing that would happen in the interim—"The protest around the killing of George Floyd, COVID, the indifference of the administration to do anything about these things"—had Jenkins reviewing the relevance of his scripts before shooting resumed in September. "As the show came together I realized the show was already speaking to so many of those things and I thought, 'I have just got to finish the show.'" Ultimately, watching the edits, Jenkins says "I felt affirmed." Although parts of the show are extremely heavy, "I felt like I'm glad we told the truth," he concludes.
The filmmaker stresses though that he's serious about The Underground Railroad remaining a limited series though. "This is definitely a show that's only one season, and I don't mean in subject matter or themes. But man, this show damn near killed me," Jenkins exclaims. "Doing this many pages, covering this much ground in 116 days, man it was heavy. But I think this is a singular journey for Cora, and so I recommend binging it, especially because there's something very exhilarating about seeing where this woman starts and seeing where she ends up."
The Underground Railroad is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.