Barry Jenkins is rebuilding American history with The Underground Railroad

Jenkins’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel – about the flight to freedom of a slave in antebellum America – resonates powerfully in a country still torn apart by the racism that so deeply scars its past. The director talks about capturing moments of truth, building foundations, and being driven by the desire for justice.

Barry JenkinsAustin Hargrave / August Image

▶︎ The Underground Railroad is available on Amazon Prime from 14 May 2021.

When Barry Jenkins first heard of the underground railroad as a child, he pictured Black men and women building, piloting and riding steam trains through the innards of antebellum America, whisking slaves away from the plantations of the South to freedom in the North.

“There was something magical about it,” Jenkins tells me over Zoom on a Saturday morning in March. “I still remember it as being one of the purest senses of pride for being Black that I’ve ever had.”

Learning, eventually, that the railroad was actually a metaphor for the informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by runaway slaves was like discovering “that Santa Claus and the tooth fairy aren’t real”, Jenkins says. It wasn’t so much the loss of a fantasy as an awakening to the enormity of what it took to flee slavery – a system so bloodcurdlingly wretched, and so deeply entrenched, that even a prosaic escape acquired a mythic glint.

No movie or television show can really speak to what it must have been like to have been my ancestors. But it doesn’t mean we can’t try.

When Jenkins came across Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad in 2016, he recalled that early memory. The book, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, imagines the underground railroad as a real network of subterranean train tunnels that the protagonist, a young woman named Cora, traverses as she flees a plantation in Georgia with a slave-catcher on her tail.

But in Whitehead’s world, the railroad is the site for both the myth and its disenchantment. For all the magic of the whistling, below-ground train and its plumes of smoke, every stop on Cora’s desperate journey offers up horrors that are all too real, drawn from different periods in American history. From a verdant but brutal cotton plantation in Georgia, she goes to a slightly futuristic South Carolina where the government secretly conducts eugenic experiments on former slaves in the guise of “Negro uplift”. In North Carolina, Cora hides in an attic, watching in fear as a violently segregationist, Nazi-like regime takes hold; then she finds herself in a Tennessee scorched by the hubris of white settlers. That Cora’s odyssey shares the contours of the great narratives of American exceptionalism – the western; the outlaw adventure – tinges the novel with bitter irony. Whitehead takes the formal template of the American Dream and drags it through the viscera of American nightmares.

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This feature appears in our May 2021 issue, alongside interviews with The Underground Railroad author Colson Whitehead and the series composer Nicholas Britell. Also in this issue: Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview.

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“It felt like a literary treatment of that childhood feeling – of having my innocence stripped away and learning about the actual world,” says Jenkins of reading the book. In the autumn of 2016, before his breakthrough feature Moonlight had even premiered at festivals, let alone won three Oscars including Best Picture, Jenkins sent Whitehead a link to the film and got on the phone with him to discuss optioning the book. Jenkins had only one non-negotiable ask: it had to be a series and not a feature film.

“Ms [Toni] Morrison [in her 1993 Nobel lecture] describes the condition of American slavery as ‘ineffable’,” he says. “I really believe that. I don’t think any of us can ever quite get to the point where we can create a movie or a television show that can really speak to what it must have been like to have been my ancestors. But it doesn’t mean we can’t try.” (As Morrison argued in her lecture: “Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.”) Jenkins says he told Whitehead: “The things I care about around this subject, they need time. And if I told this story in two hours, I would be accepting that I can’t reach them.”

Facing the pain

Reaching for the ineffable might be the motto of Jenkins’s ten-episode adaptation of The Underground Railroad. A lustrous, richly detailed epic, shot in swooning colours by James Laxton and scored with a symphonic track by Nicholas Britell, the series breathes evocative life into Whitehead’s magic realism.

Jenkins’s work grapples with a twofold task: to not just visualise things that never were, like a gleaming skyscraper piercing the sky in 1850s South Carolina, but also things that did happen but are too terrifying to witness – such as the grisly scene in the opening episode of an enslaved man being whipped and set on fire.

Thuso Mbedu and Barry Jenkins during the filming of The Underground Railroad

Narratives about slavery have always contended with this double bind: to render history with the force of truth, they must rehearse traumas so unimaginable that some would rather deny them. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel about the spectres of slavery, Beloved, is banned by multiple schools in the US for its frank depictions of racism and sexual violence. While scrolling through online customer reviews of The Underground Railroad, I noticed many instances of similar handwringing about Whitehead’s graphic descriptions of the violence faced by Cora. It reminded me of a thought Cora has in the book while working at a museum in South Carolina that stages fanciful displays of plantation life for white visitors: “Nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it.”

But how else can we learn and remember a painful past if not by looking it straight in the eye? This, for Jenkins, is the essential question, especially in 2021. “Despite people saying, ‘Do we need another movie about slavery, do we need another movie about trauma?’ these images actually aren’t as prevalent as I feel they should be,” he says. “Part of that is because we’re watching more than we’re reading, and though there are dense academic works about slavery, this subject isn’t given its due course in public schools — which is what I really care about. That is why we can have four years of the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, because there’s a blind spot about what America actually was.”

And what America continues to be, having never shaken off that legacy. It’s hard to watch the show’s patrollers, who persecute slaves and treat them like chattel in the name of the law, and not think of today’s policing and prison systems. Jenkins finished filming the show in March last year, shortly before protests against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis erupted all over the globe. “There was a moment when it even felt like: ‘Is making art the right thing for me to be doing right now?’” he says. “So much so, that I wished I could go back and make the show again and incorporate the things that were happening. But then, as we started editing, I realised, ‘Oh, it’s all there. What’s happening in the streets right now, it’s already in the show because it’s been happening forever.’”

Sheila Atim as Mabel in The Underground Railroad

Jenkins’s earliest memory of the visual representation of slavery is the 1977 TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots, whose series finale remains the third-highest-rated television episode in US history. His other touchstone for the depiction of slavery on screen was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), made nearly four decades later; only recently did Jenkins discover Gordon Parks’s 1984 film based on the same text, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. “It was interesting to encounter Mr Parks’s adaptation and to see the context within which he had to make his film,” he says. “Roots had come before, and for the first time people had engaged en masse with slavery in audiovisual storytelling. That bucket of imagery became the standard for what a depiction of that time period looked and felt like. So [in Parks’s film] there’s a weight, a responsibility, to tell the story of Solomon Northup, but with a certain level of dignity in the performances that feels almost as important as the story itself. The film doesn’t quite depict the reality of what the condition of slavery was like, but that’s not what it’s after. Steve’s film is allowed to be much more in that vein because Mr Parks’s film exists. And now, because Steve has done what he’s done, we can get one step further. The underground railroad can mean trains running under the ground, there can be a cat-and-mouse adventure, and we can still present the images forthrightly, without editorialisation.”

While its subject matter connects The Underground Railroad to the august lineage of Haley, Parks and McQueen, its stylistic ancestry extends in several other directions. Jenkins is an ardent cinephile and student of world cinema; the swashbuckling sprawl of this series allows him to mobilise his vast array of influences and conjure each episode as its own distinct genre.

I am not afraid to acknowledge the humanity of a person who has committed horrific acts. I trust the audience.

Whitehead, who I spoke to on the phone before talking to Jenkins, told me he had expected Jenkins to mention films about slavery when he asked what references he had in mind for the adaptation, but was sold when the filmmaker responded with Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012).

In our conversation, Jenkins mentions several other names: David Cronenberg for the series’ moments of body horror; Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) for the eerie South Carolina chapter; Hitchockian games of surveillance in the North Carolina episode; and the sensuous juxtapositions of Claire Denis in the series finale. But the one filmmaker whose influence seems embedded most deeply in Jenkins’s DNA is Wong Kar Wai. The Hong Kong master’s oozing romanticism, hallucinatory compositions and longing-soaked close-ups are echoed and reworked across Jenkins’s filmography. The Underground Railroad is steeped in these flourishes, turning Whitehead’s grim caper into an unfailingly beautiful saga that twirls the indefatigable Cora (newcomer Thuso Mbedu), and her love interests Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and Royal (William Jackson Harper) through tableaux of tragedy and aching romance.

Aaron Pierre as Caeser and Thuso Mbedu as Cora in The Underground Railroad

Watching Jenkins’s lyrical, often precious compositions, I can’t help but think of German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno’s contention that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”. Is it barbaric to make art after slavery, I ask Jenkins? “The Holocaust was so terrible,” he says. “But they were making films about it while it was occurring. It was a different period entirely, of course; the tools to document it, film it and represent it were readily available. But because those images haven’t been allowed to recede to the background, they’ve been present and prevalent.

“Of course, there are still people who deny the Holocaust. But there are still states in this country, the country I live in, that bear the emblem of the Confederate flag. There are still monuments to Confederate soldiers all over the place. On January 6th, there was a Confederate flag in the US Capitol. For four years, the slogan has been ‘Make America Great Again’, because this subject, whether you want to call it art, whether it’s pedagogical, whether it’s entertainment – it just hasn’t been as present. Because of that, where that cavity is, other myths have been allowed to persist, such as [the notion that] the Civil War was fought because of states’ rights.

“There’s a filmmaker friend of mine, László Nemes, who made a movie called Son of Saul [2015],” he continues. “The imagery, the art, depicting [the Holocaust] is so vast that this man can create a film that is so simple, so singular, so niche: it involves one man in one place performing one task. Nemes has the freedom to not speak to the entire condition of the Holocaust or World War II. If I wanted to make a movie about an African man on a ship from West Africa to the Caribbean who turns out to be a good sailor and becomes one of the few Africans working these ships going back and forth, and he goes down the hall one day and sees someone from his village or family, and his goal is now to figure out how to save this person… I can’t tell that story right now because the foundation hasn’t been laid.”

Jenkins is not a provocateur à la Nemes, whose audacious play with empathy and identification in Son of Saul polarised critics, but The Underground Railroad does flirt with some provocations – most prominently in its reinterpretation of the character of the slave-catcher Ridgeway (played by Joel Edgerton). In the book, he is a cipher: a man driven simply by the “American imperative”, as he puts it, to take what he believes is rightfully his. Whitehead cleverly pairs him with a loyal African-American sidekick (his ‘one Black friend’, if you will), the ten-year-old Homer (Chase W. Dillon), as if to underscore the distinction between racism as an individual attribute and a systemic reality. In the series, Ridgeway’s background is elaborated like the origin story of a supervillain, with his racism traced to a strained, pathos-ridden relationship with his more progressive father (Peter Mullan). The nervous rage that Edgerton pours into the performance makes for thrilling television, but it also raises the question: do we need to give a bigot relatable motives?

Chase Dillon as Homer and Joel Edgerton as Ridgeway in The Underground Railroad

“I am not afraid to acknowledge the humanity of a person who has committed horrific acts,” says Jenkins. “I trust the audience enough to know that in doing so, I’m not justifying or even empathising with that character. I think it becomes even more horrific when you see that this person once was a human being.” But Jenkins says he also asked himself how, as an artist, he might present Ridgeway’s story without centring him. The series achieves this by fleshing out the character of Jasper, a runaway captured for a brief stretch alongside Cora, as a foil for Ridgeway. A fleeting, tragic figure in the book, Jasper (Calvin Leon Smith) becomes one of the series’ most heartbreaking characters: a man who decides to free himself by dying on his own terms. He refuses to eat or even speak, in a simple gesture of resistance that drives Ridgeway to madness. “On the surface Ridgeway is in power, and yet he’s so frustrated because there’s nothing he can do to rob Jasper of his self-possession,” Jenkins says. “He can take his body, but he can’t take him.”

The little things

Jenkins’s formal choices in The Underground Railroad seem rooted in these fine negotiations between the imperatives of propulsive storytelling and the desire to capture, even within the series’ fictional premise, kernels of much-ignored truths. “I love my editors, but I would joke that I want to put them out of work,” he says. “I was always wrestling with the vacuum of imagery that deals with this subject matter and the scepticism around it. So even though I know we’re on a set and these are actors, any time I can extend a moment of time to reveal new information instead of cutting – not that cutting is artifice, but when there is a cut, you know someone is manipulating – that’s what I want to do. In Chungking Express [1994], Wong Kar Wai has this whole riff about the pineapple cans and time, and the idea of cinema just being little bits of time. Each one of those bits of time is a moment of truth, and the longer you can extend it, the more truth there is in the piece.”

I knew there had to be moments of very realistic and grounded beauty in these people’s everyday lives.
The Underground Railroad (2021)

That attention to everyday temporality ensures that even with its epic arc and grand production values, The Underground Railroad feels like a seamless extension of Jenkins’s filmography. The scope of the director’s films has steadily expanded throughout his career, from the Rohmer-esque same-day encounter of two strangers in Medicine for Melancholy (2008), to the coming-of-age narrative of Moonlight (2016), to the novelistic, non-linear period drama of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). Yet, in all these movies, Jenkins remains a miniaturist, focused on small, quotidian moments: the whistle of a kettle; the quiet, oceanic baptism of a young boy; the wordless electricity that flits between lovers.

“I always say, and this goes back even to Medicine and Moonlight, that to me, everything is about chopping wood,” Jenkins says. “Just because the moment is rapturous doesn’t mean we need to film it rapturously. There’s a moment I love in Moonlight where Kevin sits this pot on the stove when he’s about to make tea for Black, and the pot just shakes a little bit. That’s one of my favourite shots in the film.

“For a movie that was made with a single camera in 25 days, it probably was a bit irresponsible to film that shot because we didn’t have time to do inserts. But there was something very loving about it, and I thought: ‘This is a rapturous moment.’ The moment itself is very oblique and unrefined, and yet there’s no reason it shouldn’t get a very refined, rapturous treatment. I felt the same way about making this show.”

In marrying the historical scale of The Underground Railroad with that same granular approach, Jenkins crafts a kind of counterpoint to the legacy of The Birth of a Nation (1915), a movie he remembers being made to watch in film school. If D.W. Griffith’s landmark film pioneered the formal mechanics of homogeneous cinematic time (and with it, a realism that effortlessly masked racist propaganda), then Jenkins seems to contrive an alternative texture of temporality: one that dwells in discrete moments of lived experience, attuned to the stories that nestle inside or at the edges of bigger stories. Though Jenkins tweaks and reimagines several plot points of Whitehead’s novel, his most significant interventions in the text come in the form of these minor moments – the gestures and exchanges with which Jenkins and his writers colour in the margins of Cora’s narrative.

The focus on details, on little pools of time, allows Jenkins to find space for poignancy and pleasure within a world of despair. “When I started researching the lives of [slaves], trying to read whatever actual transcripts of their testimonies I could find, I found that the condition they lived in was absolutely horrific,” he says.

“But I felt like in order for me, Barry Jenkins, to exist – in order for the lineage, the legacy, from those folks to me to have been strong enough that I could actually be alive in this country – they had to have had fortitude through love, through community, through family, even through the building of fractured families out of the degradation of being separated from their kin. So I knew there had to be moments of very realistic and grounded beauty in these people’s everyday lives. We can’t suppose that they didn’t do things to nurture themselves and to preserve whatever aspects of their beauty they could control and hold on to.”

Barry Jenkins and Thuso Mbedu during the filming of The Underground Railroad

Jenkins says he cried several times while making the series, overcome not just by the sorrow of the scenes but also the tenderness the actors often brought to them. “One of my favourite images in this whole damn show is of an enslaved man who cannot conceive children sitting on a porch and sewing a doll for the kids who are not his but who he hopes will become his,” Jenkins says, referring to a subplot in the final episode.

“It’s not in the script; it’s something that we just created in the moment. The doll was on the set, and the actor, Sam Malone, was giving such a nuanced performance, and I thought: ‘There were enslaved men who did this.’ My father, who isn’t my father, raised my brother and sister, who were not his kids, for ten years before I came into the picture. So Black men have been doing this for centuries, but we don’t see images of it. And it’s a very small piece of that episode, but the series is ten hours because of moments like that. That’s the ‘why’ of it for me.”

Construction and destruction

The Underground Railroad feels remarkable for that reason – it gives thick, viscous life to stories that, while spinning a fantastical yarn, also serve to fill an absence in our cultural and cinematic record. Jenkins grappled with that void in both existential and some very practical ways. “One of the problems we had was that despite people’s opinions that there are too many movies on this subject, there actually haven’t been enough of them for there to be sets [from that time] lying around. There are big plantation houses that people have preserved and have weddings in, and there are museums. But the actual places where enslaved people lived and worked, those are again things we don’t want to acknowledge, so we’ve torn down that history. It’s expensive to make a film and it’s expensive to build sets, but in this case, Mark Friedberg, our production designer, really pushed to build everything from the ground up – the cabins, the cotton fields, the sugar cane.

“And we left the sets there, in Georgia, because I think there are more stories to be told about other characters, not just Cora,” he continues. “And instead of having to spend X amount of capital to build those sets, someone else can come after me, and they don’t have to build the quarter from scratch. They can just step into it.”

Thuso Mbedu as Cora in The Underground Railroad

It wasn’t just building that Jenkins did with the series – he did a little destroying, too. He tells me that a crucial scene in which a character dynamites an entrance to the railroad was shot at Stone Mountain in Georgia, which features a rock relief of three Confederate leaders. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but I delighted in the fact that I got to blow up a piece of Stone Mountain. To me that’s a metaphor for this whole thing. I don’t expect to solve the totality of anything, but I’m going to chip away at it. I didn’t start this shit, but I’m going to finish it. Or well, I’m not going to finish it, we are going to finish it, because somebody else is going to come after me, and somebody is going to come after them, and we’re all going to keep chipping away at it.”

We the people

Several times in our conversation, Jenkins uses the word ‘we’ while describing historical and enduring injustices, and then pauses to qualify what he means: “Not ‘we’ as Black folks, but ‘we’ as the American education system or American society.”

His grappling with the first-person plural echoes one of the central themes of the book, which the series also vocalises powerfully: the hypocrisy of the United States Declaration of Independence and its disingenuous proclamation, “We hold these truths to…” Whitehead writes in the novel that Cora “didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men.” The unravelling of that mythical ‘we’ is in a sense Whitehead’s project; the illusion of the collective falls apart as soon as an enslaved Black woman is made its representative.

In The Underground Railroad, Jenkins navigates these competing axes of belonging with both grace and the requisite rage. His series is a corrective to American cultural history; a memorial to the lives of African Americans past and present; and, at its deepest level, an act of speculative autobiography and revisionist authorship by a Black American filmmaker.

The portraits of individual characters and families that are interwoven throughout the series – which the director says he filmed with background actors whenever he had extra time during the shoot – are inspired by Jenkins’s own curiosity about his ancestors and all the stories in his family and community that still remain untold. And there are moments in the film (turns of Jenkins’s own contrivance, which he has asked me not to spoil here) that are driven by his desire to execute justice, even if in the realm of fiction.

“I try to make it not personal, and yet, talking to you, I keep saying, ‘we’,” Jenkins says. “It’s clear: this shit is personal.”

Further reading

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