Interview: Barry Jenkins goes deep into ‘The Underground Railroad’
Barry Jenkins is no stranger to bringing thought-provoking and full-fledged characters to the big screen, as he did in his Oscar-winning movies Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Now the Oscar-winning screenwriter is looking to take over television with his all-new limited series The Underground Railroad. Based off Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, Jenkins takes viewers on an epic journey following Cora Randall as she fights diligently for her freedom all while taking back who she is as a person.
Jenkins spent some time talking with us on what drew him to adapt Whitehead’s novel, why he wanted to tackle the subject of American slavery on television instead of film, and the small object that helped inspire his favorite scene of the series.
Jordan Walker: Hello Barry, how are you today?
Barry Jenkins: I’m great, thanks for taking time to talk today!
JW: It’s my pleasure! I first want to start out my saying how magnificent piece of television The Underground Railroad is!
BJ: Thank you man, I really appreciate the kind words.
JW: Let’s jump right in! Over the past few years, you’ve become a leader in depicting the African American diaspora on film. What drew you to adapt Colson Whitehead’s book?
BJ: The big thing for me is that I’m a big fan of Whitehead’s work. I originally wanted to adapt his novel “The Intuitionist” many, many years ago before anyone knew who I was, so I didn’t have much luck in that. But also, as a kid, when I heard the term “underground railroad” I just imagined Black folk underground – and I didn’t even really imagine, I actually saw Black folk on trains underground. My grandfather was a longshoreman, so I would see him go off to work in his hard hat and his work belt and steel-toed boots and I thought “oh, that’s what the underground railroad was!” It was men like my grandfather building these tunnels underground. So, I always held onto that feeling because it was something so wonderful and magical but grounded about it. So, when I head the conceit of Colson’s novel, I knew I had to chase this because I’d always wanted to do something with my voice within this art form, I’ve found myself obsessed with honoring my ancestors and apply my art, so this felt like the perfect time to do it!
JW: Why did you believe this was a story that needed to be told on the television rather than a feature film?
BJ: You know, feature film, when you go into a theater it’s very a captive experience. You sit in the middle of an aisle surrounded by strangers; you surrender your cellphone, and the images and sounds are much greater than you. I think in the case of depicting this era in our history, these images have the ability to become quite loud and quite hard, and they somehow may overwhelm the other images, the softer images I like to call them. So, I felt like a 10-episode series was the best way to depict this story.
JW: You’ve noted that you “feared this show“ for quite a while. Can you explain for everyone what that fear was, how you felt approaching this project, and how you overcame those fears?
BJ: The fear was… this is a very seductive and manipulative medium and these images can be quite triggering. To be honest, there’s a version of these images where you’re devouring both yourself and the creation of them, and devouring the crew and the creation of them, and in some ways, are threatening to devour the audience and their receiving of them. So, I was very terrified of the potential of that, and I think it created a scenario where I had to always, in a certain way, film every scene I was approaching twice. There’s the version in front of me that I was actually making with our cast and crew, and the other version I could make, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making that. I always had to be aware of that, and it made it even more of an arduous process than it would normally be. I think that’s the responsibility that we shoulder when we take on images like this.
It reminds me of Hilton Als’ review of Moonlight, and I’m going to use a word of pejorative here from the review but also the film, where Little asks Juan “What’s a faggot?” and Hilton wrote “he unpacks the word but doesn’t unpack the boy with it.” I thought it was important to unpack these acts of brutality, unpack this condition of American slavery, but not unpack the audience with it.
JW: Powerful, very powerful! Did you feel personally responsible to tell this kind of story on screen in order to education others about our history through entertainment?
BJ: Not a personally responsibility to educate because educate is a very active verb, and I think that would become the intention of the piece. Also entertain, maybe not the word I would use either because that comes with intentionality as well. I wanted to create a story, I wanted to create images that were in the image of my ancestors and spoke forthrightly to their experience and hopefully honored them in the process. The responsibility of course was in doing that and going back to the notion of unpacking. I think in a certain way, we have been given a version of history and we’ve accepted that version of history as both factual and truthful. That history has often been presented through one very particular gaze, one very specific point of view, and I think in creating these images and creating this show, I felt the responsibility to re-conceptualize how we view some of these images and re-conceptualize how we look at history.
‘The Underground Railroad’ review: Barry Jenkins adapts the Pulitzer Prize winner with poignant grace
I’ve been saying this ad nauseam but, in the making this show over the past four years the slogan “Make America Great Again” – if there were a version of words spoken in public or heard on the news as a hashtag, or if you log into Twitter to see what’s trending, those words “Make America Great Again” were very large over the time we created this show. I think implicit in those words is a world full of ignorance affiliated to acknowledge what America once was and continues to be. It participates in this erasure of our ancestors and in creating this show, I was combating that erasure to some degree.
JW: How was it for you adjusting to television for the first time?
BJ: It was kinda like the same thing! We tried to approach it the same way we would our feature films, but of course this is a very different storytelling medium both as a vessel for pushing out images, but the screen is inherently smaller. In the duration of the story, you’re allowed to create many wonderful avenues and opportunities. We still tried to work in the same way as we do, which is being open to spontaneity, trying to find moments of duration – you know, in what we’re communicating. We can communicate as simply as possible with as little interruption as possible with the audience and the actors. So, it was one of those things as we got into it, as opposed to bending ourselves to the medium and opposed to the medium bending to us, we just found a language that was really unique the story we’re telling and the moment we’re it. I think some really good things arose organically, and unexpectedly, from that process.
JW: Most episodes clocked in between 60-70 minutes, but the self-contained episodes (Chapter 4 following a young Arnold Ridgeway) being 40 minutes and Chapter 7 “Fanny Briggs” being only 20 minutes, was this intentional?
BJ: It wasn’t intentional, it was another organic process! Since we’re not a network television show, we don’t have all these very rigorous mandates of story form that we have to meet. The story we’re telling itself creates the form. Some of the episodes demanded the time they demanded, and I think the lovely thing about all of it was Amazon supporting us in that we had to get into the episode and understand them to dictate the form it wanted to take. There are certain episodes that could be much shorter, and there were certainly episodes that could’ve been much longer!
JW: I’d love to know the process of pulling this spectacular cast together. First off, let’s talk about how you found Thuso Mbedu.
BJ: I didn’t know of her at all! To quote Ridgeway at the end of the North Carolina episode “I don’t think I did, I think she found me” and you know, that was a line that was for me and I gave to the character. Thuso is a very industrious young woman and a talented young woman, and for me I feel like if you can walk in that door and show me that character, the role is yours! I think in some ways its fitting both Cora, Mabel and Holly were born on the continent of Africa. There’s no character in the show born after 1840. As of 1840, there aren’t any “African Americans” but Africans living in America. Thuso was the character, and that was evident from the very first tape she sent in! I knew this person, because she’s on this journey to take possession of her personhood, there was going to be times where she needed to emote with as little voice as possible, and as muchexpression and body posture as possible. Thuso has this great ability to look both 16 and 66, and as she goes on this journey, depending on where she is, and what state she’s in physically and emotionally, she can communicate so many things. She took that part; she came in and took that part!
JW: She absolutely did! Another dynamic I’d love to explore with you is the relationship between Arnold Ridgeway and Homer. As a director, did you contribute to their onscreen chemistry in any way?
BJ: You know, a lot of things were organic, and a lot of things were worked. Joel being a director himself, and whenever you pair an adult and a child in a scene, the adult in the scene with the child is doing some of the work of the director. I think Joel and Chase had a wonderful relationship. For me, that relationship was a very particular thing. It wasn’t about a father and son dynamic; it was about indoctrination and grooming. I think the responsibility for that fell on the way we filmed them, and it fell on the way Joel interacted with Chase. The two of them did this really wonderful job of getting at something that… that character man, I tell you I wanted to fight Colson over the Arnold character because he’s such an enigma and typically we may think this character isn’t worth exploring in this form. We see these characters only as they are, and you don’t know how they came to be. I thought this was a wonderful way to explore how people come to be who they are.
JW: After directing all 10 chapters, what shot, scene, or episode are you most proud of?
BJ: Ah man, there’s so many! Too many to name! in a film. Early in pre-production, the prop master walked into my office with a pile of okra seeds, and they were very dry. I asked “what the hell are those? They look dead.” He rung it out and all these seeds dropped onto my desk. He said, “no matter how dry this gets, if you plant it, they will grow.”
I was holding these seeds in my back pocket as we were doing the show and I kept writing them into these moments. Cora continues to have these seeds along her journey. We shot the last scene of the show on maybe day 48 of production, so it was pretty early. I had to figure out what to do with them because we couldn’t return to the location once we finished shooting the entire series, so I needed to know right then what I was going to do with the seeds. About two days before I write this scene and we get there, there’s no rehearsal. If you noticed, Thuso and this young woman playing Molly are just standing there under this tree for about 15-20 seconds because they don’t know we’re rolling. I yell “action” and Thuso stands up – there’s no cut, not a single edit – and she does the whole thing for the first time. We’re just moving the camera as she’s moving, the whole thing is unplanned, unrehearsed, unblocked, and something just so magical, so visceral, so real and so delicate took place on top of that hill. I think it was the perfect summation of the journey she’s been on and it was motivated by this guy, Matt Marks, walking into my office going “if you plant this, it will grow.” I think things like that, especially with a show with so many moving logistic, to create an environment where something as delicate as that can take place, it’s truly amazing. That is by far of the most magical moment that was in the series.
JW: What do you want viewers who don’t have to walk away with after seeing The Underground Railroad? II had a weight lifted off my shoulders in the finale as Cora stumbled upon Ollie heading west. In my mind, Cora finally found her savior. Is that a correct assumption?
BJ: I think so, I think that’s a correct assumption. When I first read this book, I realized that Cora is not only on this journey to outrun the scourge of slavery, but also on the journey to reconcile this sense of abandonment from her mother. I felt in the making of this show we created a journey, whether it’s through the creation of the character Grace, whether it’s through the ending of the show which involves the character of Molly, who wasn’t in the book, but somehow we taken the scaffolding that Colson has given us about this woman whose trying to come to terms with abandonment and living her life throughout the course of the show, she lives it and comes to understand the sacrifices that’s demanded when being a parent. This is especially true during the times depicted on the show, the times our ancestors were born into. I do think in seeing her going through this journey and vanquish the things she must vanquish and learns the lessons she learns while trying not repeat them – not repeat the abandonment she’s endured onto someone else. I think there’s a release, there’s a catharsis and there’s a way forward through that journey. I think that’s one of the things I certainly hope people take away from the show.
Amazon Prime Video will release all 10 episodes of The Underground Railroad on Friday, May 14.