The award-winning filmmaker takes us inside his drive and inspiration behind Amazon Prime’s The Underground Railroad.
(Warning: This column contains some plot points in The Underground Railroad series.)
As one of Hollywood’s most hottest and in-demand filmmakers, Barry Jenkins has had a winning streak that rivals those of Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and yes, Ava DuVernay. After directing Medicine for Melancholy, the Best Picture winning Moonlight, and the heart-stopping epic If Beale Street Could Talk—he could have written a ticket to take any project he wanted—and very few would have blamed him.
But a challenge is nothing but a puzzle, and for the talented director, the ordeal in filming The Underground Railroad was born from a love of the author, the subject, the message, and has been the most difficult undertaking of his career. Adapted from Colston Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel of the same name, The Underground Railroad is a ten-hour fantastical epic following Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved teenage girl who escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation.
The series, which was filmed in Georgia, depicts the underground railroad as a literal train that secretly transports people who have escaped enslavement and makes stops in different states.
It is one of the few programs on streaming services that would have benefitted from the week-by-week rollout (if you have yet to watch the show, shame on you.) The reason why is because Jenkins turned the novel into a searing, emotional, real world resonating epic. There are breathtaking moments that augment and pay homage to the novel, but Barry Jenkins’ commitment (along with production designer Mark Friedberg) to build everything from the railways to the cotton and sugarcane fields to the plantation—is a testimony to how Barry Jenkins wants the story to continue after the hype from the show has settled.
As a filmmaker who takes his time in telling stories, Jenkins marries the terror of being Black in America with the beauty of finding love and community within the awfulness. And while some viewers may share frustration over another slave picture, Jenkins knows these hard truths need to be delivered with the subtlety of a steamroller in order to make an impact.
With the limited series still in rotation, Barry Jenkins spoke with EBONY about finding a rooted purpose within the project, why self-care was a salve during filming, and how the show comes for those still screaming MAGA from the rooftops.
EBONY: What has it been like to see the response to Thuso Mbedu’s performance and witness her make history as the first South African actress to lead an American television series?
Barry Jenkins: It has been interesting. When people came in to audition for Cora, I just saw their individual performance and hopefully [I] got to see them as the character. For Thuso, I absolutely saw her as Cora Randall. In fact, the runner-up for the role is a really fantastic Black American actress, and it could have broken either way. But when the trailer came out, I realized [Thuso] fit the part and how big her casting was for the people back home [in South Africa] for her. To me, it is one of those [pleasant] side effects [to directing]—it has been really lovely to see her people rallying around her.
For creating The Underground Railroad, plantations and slave quarters were reproduced to immerse the cast, crew, and viewer into the environments from Colston Whitehead’s novel. Even still, there has to be a level of deeply rooted trauma experienced while being on set. What sort of mental health or self-care elements were available to the cast and crew? Also, how did you take care of yourself while filming was happening?
For the crew, we had a guidance counselor named Ms. Kim White. I called her Ms. Kim and she was great, man. She would float around the set and I had told the entire cast and crew that she was empowered, meaning if there was someone she felt was not healthy mentally or emotionally, she would just pull them aside and counsel them. For some people, Ms. Kim was a resource, but also knowing that we all had that as a safety net helped a lot of people deal with everything we were doing with The Underground Railroad.
For myself, I just tried to power through it. We’re recreating these places and it is full of emotion and memories passed on through generations. As an artist, though, I know I got a job to do. But there was a day when Ms. Kim came up to me and didn’t say a word at all. She just tapped me on my shoulder and pulled me off my own set [laughs]. She told me that what I was doing was trying to stomach it all, [and] that I wasn’t going to last under the weight of it. We were on day 30 or 34 of 116 and she told me, “You have to find a different way to process this.” It led into a session and then I got better about finding releases and sharing with my friends about where I was at mentally.
The series has been out for a minute now, so—spoiler alert—seeing the episode that hinted at the secret eugenics happening was very harrowing to watch. I am hoping that audiences were ready for that to say the least...
I’m glad you mentioned that episode. Most people focus on the very obvious trauma from the first episode. Actually, the second episode was the first one we filmed and the content therein was mentally just as strenuous, just as difficult, as the more visual horrors that we depicted in that inaugural episode.
Does that play into any challenges that you and the production had to overcome while filming?
It was one of those things where we had to release control over everything. The museum? We built that. Basically, everything was built from scratch. But then there were some elements like the North Carolina episode, where we went through five different towns trying to figure out which town was going to be the setting for that episode. We knew that we needed something that we didn’t have to build in order to make it work. And man, we just found that place. It was like a Bible summer camp kind-of-place with all these wooden houses. It had a pavilion in the middle. The trees were already painted white at the bottom.
We went and met with an organization that ran that town and said, ‘Look, we want to be honest. This is what we’re doing [and] this is why we’re doing it.’ They understood where we were coming from and respected the purpose of what we were doing. I think in even just having that conversation with them, it helped [us] mentally to understand that while we are recreating these horrific things in this certain way, we’re doing it for a purpose that resonates with people in real time.
Speaking of purpose, the conversations between you and author Colston Whitehead led to some difference between the book and the show, correct? There is a line from Cora in the book that comes from when she’s working at the museum. “Nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world and no one wanted to hear it,” she says. So why, in your opinion, should audiences look unflinchingly at a show such as this while similarly traumatic incidents are happening in real-time on almost a routine basis?
It’s interesting, right? When I began the show, I couldn’t anticipate that many of its depictions would follow along with what’s happening in the news damn near every day, it seems. I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that because I wouldn’t have wanted that to be the case. I would much rather this show not exist if it also meant these things happening in America and abroad wouldn’t exist either. In the time that I made the show, those words, “Make America Great Again,” were the most popular phrase on Twitter for the last five years.
Because of that, it made me feel like—as you said using the line from the book—that we know these things happen, and yet somehow we still continue to not acknowledge them. I believe that now it is incumbent upon all of us who have a voice to create images to speak truth to power and not allow this willful ignorance to exist, so that when people say “Make America Great Again,” right away you’ll know that’s bullshit. Because, as we are all witnessing, there is something missing in this “greatness” that you’re speaking of.
I also want to say this because I haven’t said this often: I’m not saying America can’t be great, but it won’t be if we continue to fail to acknowledge what this country actually is, what it once was, and as what we see on the news every day. Because of that, I’m not saying anybody has to watch [The Underground Railroad], but I think that line you quoted from the book is a direct message, sharing that at some point, we’re going to have to see and address the issue at hand.
For those who may not know, you’re an official member of the Chopstars. Most recently DJ Candlestick and OG Ron C made If Beale Street Was Chopped for your last feature film. With The Underground Railroad score out now is there a chance for a chopped up, not slopped up version to follow suit?
[Laughs] We’re going to try. We [actually] got Slim K in the “Tennessee” episode and a song is in the show, too. There’s already a precedent [laughs].
This music on The Underground Railroad is different though. I gotta get up with [DJ] Candlestick and see. He can be a bit resistant to chopping up the orchestral stuff. On If Beale Street Was Chopped, the last four tracks are taken from the score and it sounds real dope. We shall see, man. We’ll see. I’m going to try, [but] that’s on them.
Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.