“If I never made anything else, anything else, or if somehow, I didn’t wake up tomorrow, or if it was decided that nobody wanted to finance my things anymore, I would still be satisfied because of this thing.”
Barry Jenkins needs not worry about the Underground Railroad being his last project. He already has a much buzzed about live-action Lion King prequel and several other works in development. Yet, Jenkins beams with uninhibited pride and gratitude as he discusses The Underground Railroad. As he should.
His four-year long journey of adapting Railroad has concluded in stunning fashion. The ten-part Amazon Prime miniseries is an absolute triumph, taking everything Jenkins does exceedingly well— intimate, compassionate, beautifully dreamlike story-telling and propels them to an epic scale.
Much has been written and much has been said about Railroad, yet despite the think pieces, the praise and 7 Emmy nominations—including Jenkins’ first for directing the limited series— Railroad still feels like an underrated gem, one waiting to be discovered, studied, and admired for years to come. We’ve already known Jenkins to be a master of the artful indie, but The Underground Railroad proves the Academy Award winner can do just about anything. And that we’ve only begin to see the scope of Jenkins’ genius. How lucky we are to be along for the ride.
“What do the kids say? I risked it all? I risked it all for this one,” Jenkins says. And I couldn’t be more proud of it.”
Read more from our interview with Emmy nominee Barry Jenkins below:
Shadan Larki: The Underground Railroad has been such a long process for you, from inception to now the show being out in the world, and so much has changed for you in that time. How are you feeling about it all now?
Barry Jenkins: Oh, you know, it’s interesting. Because of the pandemic, we can’t go out and have face-to-face conversations with audiences. It has been tricky, sort of checking social media to see what people are directing towards me on Twitter, Instagram, and things like that. So, I can’t say I really have a good feel for how this show has made its way into the world, which is why your question is great. Usually, you put the thing out, and then it starts to change; by people participating in it, it kind of evolves. I think because of the pandemic and all of us being locked down and not being able to engage directly with audiences, that feels a bit removed this time. It is very different from past projects.
Larki: Do you find yourself looking back, picking up on things and finding that your own perspective has changed in any way?
Jenkins: No, not really. You know, when you are making these things, it is so intense, you kind of don’t have the ability or the space to see it from 30,000 feet. I just live in the memory of the moment of creation, In particular working with the cast and crew. I have watched it so many times in making it, I have almost become anesthetized to it.That is what is really great about doing Q&As and going out to talk to the audience. You kind of get to see it fresh and anew. I don’t have any kids, but I imagine it’s like playing music that you love for your kids for the first time and them hearing it for the first time, and it gives you a new appreciation for something you already have a relationship with.
Larki: It is interesting that you mention social media. One of the things I love about you is that you are a very front-facing, public director. You’re engaged. You’re interacting with people. Why is that so important to you? There are a lot of directors in your position who don’t do that.
Barry: I don’t know. Different strokes, different folks, I guess. I don’t engage nearly as much as I used to. I loved when I had like 2,000 followers; that was awesome because you have your own private chat group, but out in the open. Whereas now, things can be so loud on social media, I don’t feel like it is the same.
What hooked me on social media was when I was making my first film, Medicine For Melancholy (2008); I was obsessed with this band out of Chicago called The Sea and Cake, and I met this guy from Russia over this message board, who was also obsessed with this band. He made music on the side, and I got to use some of his music in my first feature. On what planet am I becoming friends with someone who lives in Moscow, Russia? Oh, it’s through the internet. Through social media. So, I like that part of it. The ability to just being able to connect with people that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. The other side of social media? It can be a total drag. (Laughs).
Larki: I did get the opportunity to speak with Thuso (Mbedu), she is just incredible. One thing we talked about is that in the book Cora is a very internal character. Even in the show, she doesn’t have much dialogue. She told me about working with you to craft what that meant in terms of her performance. From your perspective, what did you want your version of Cora to be? What was important for you to pinpoint and focus on in bringing her character to life? And in that close collaboration that shared with Thuso?
Jenkins: It is interesting. Film or visual storytelling isn’t the best medium for interiority. I think literature is much more readily tailored made to that because you can go into the interior voice, and you can literally translate that voice to the audience. Whereas if the person is on camera, and they are not speaking, they aren’t speaking. You aren’t privy to their inner thoughts. Yet, when you have a performer like Thuso, who can just channel so much through her expression, through her posture, through her eyes. I do think that cinema, the eyes are the vessel into the souls; it is the connection between the audience, the character, and the actor.
I thought it was a really wonderful challenge, especially because of the episodic nature of the show. Every state that Cora gets to, she is kind of manifesting for the audience, I think, through her consciousness, through her feelings, through her emotions, through her spirit. I think for Thuso, the challenge was how much? As you said, as you teed up with the question. How much can you communicate without speaking? For me, it was really wonderful to then take it to the next step and go, ‘Even though you aren’t speaking these things, you are feeling them.’ How can we use the light, the camera angle, the sound design to communicate this language that is not being verbalized?
Larki: Mabel (Sheila Atim) is a somewhat minor character in the novel. In episode 10, “Mabel,” you really bring her to the forefront and give her agency. How did you craft that, especially when you didn’t necessarily have the book to fall back on? What was important for you to showcase there?
Jenkins: With every bit of storytelling, there is only so much detail you can go into in any given moment. I think there was a lot suggested about the character. A lot was suggested about the environment the character is in. It was our job, myself and all the writers of the show. And in this case, with “Mabel,” Jacqueline Hoyt, my aide-de-camp, it was our task to take these suggestions, this ephemeraof Mabel and her environment and translate them into sounds and images.
Shelia did such a wonderful job. When we filmed that episode, at least the Georgia portion of the episode, we did that in five days, and it was a lot to communicate, a lot to channel, a lot to represent in five days. For me, it was all about perspective. How could I put the audience in the perspective of this camera so they could understand, they could legitimately feel, the choice, or the lack thereof, that a character or a human being like this would have had. The pressure she would have been under and would have ultimately succumbed to. It was by far the most important challenge undertaken for the show.
Larki: How do you know that you got the shot? On a project like this, where there is so much material, you’re shooting for 100-plus days. Is there a moment, do you have Spidey senses that start to tingle, where you go, “I’ve got it, this is it.”
Jenkins: I don’t have Spidey senses [laughs] that start to tingle. I am always looking for what I call the “lightning strike take.” I’ve always said that, but it was particularly important for this one because we filmed the show entirely in the state of Georgia. And It’s not safe to film if there is lightning within a certain distance of set. There were many days that we didn’t finish the day’s work because lightning would appear. Once there is a lightning strike within a certain distance of the set, you have to stop for a certain amount of time, you can’t come back until that time has elapsed, and if there is another lightning strike within that time, then the clock resets. There were many days where we would film for four hours, a lightning strike would happen, and it would be four hours until we came back, so we would lose four hours of that day. I came up with the term, “lightning strike take,” which is if lightning struck and we couldn’t finish the day’s work, we’d have enough in this one take, in this one shot, to communicate the essence of this one scene.
Working from that principle, there are certain days where you just don’t know that you have it, but you have faith that between the writing, the cast, and all the wonderful crew that even if you don’t get exactly what you want, and doing this many pages in this many days, you do have to accept there are going to be many days where you don’t get exactly what you want, but because everyone is moving in concert and moving in the right spirit that you will get something that is in keeping with the essence and the true spirit of the show. That was how we did it, and it was great.
You know, 116 days sounds like a lot of time, plenty enough time to communicate a story, but when you are doing so much material in that amount of days, and because it’s episodic in nature, there were certain days where if we didn’t get a scene in three hours, the entire episode would fall apart because you are covering so much ground, so you just had to have this faith that as long as we keep moving forward and moving in the right spirit, something that we capture we’ll be the thing. As opposed to working on a target where we’re all going to be here until we get the exactly the right thing. That just wasn’t the way to make the show.
Larki: The beauty of the Sci-Fi and the Afro-Futurism elements in the show is that it allows you to comment on human nature. What struck me was just how relevant The Underground Railroad feels, even though it is set in the past. In particular, the way you use your white characters and the idea of, ‘Who really is an ally. Who can you trust?’
Larki: How did you use Sci-Fi and Afro-Futurism to bring forth the themes present in the show? And are there some elements that are more important that you want the audience to focus on?
Jenkins: I don’t really know if any are more or less important than others. And all praise to Colson Whitehead becausea lot of those things are baked into the book. It was just our task to translate those things into sounds and images. It was really wonderful working with the adaptation because Colson did so much of the heavy lifting for us with the story and from a theme standpoint.
It is kind of cool that you mentioned afro-futurism because you think of afro-futurism as something in the future with spaceships and rocket ships. But I also like to think of my ancestors as being this embodiment of afro-futurism. Particularly because their bodies were so constricted that I imagine that their minds were incredibly robust, working in overdrive to a certain degree.
And as far as the relevance to the show, it is interesting, I remember when I was working on my first film, I went to the Vienna Film Festival. I was in the city of Vienna, just walking around some of these buildings, ’Oh, this is a school that such and such studied at.’ And the school was older than the United States, and I thought, ‘Oh, we have a very young history.’ So, it makes sense that if you are speaking to something truthful at any point in American history, that thing will still feel relevant because we just haven’t been around for very long. As great as this country, at some points, is and can be, we just haven’t been around very long. So, of course, every single thing in our history is still very much relevant to what is happening today.
Larki: Barry, you have spoken about how much this project means to you and how much it has connected you to your roots, to your ancestors, and to your family. As you move forward from The Underground Railroad and put something that has taken up so much time and mental energy behind you, what does this mean in terms of where you have been in your career and where you want to go?
Jenkins: Yeah, that is a tough question. I don’t know where this fits in my career. Just like this country, my career is still young. For most people, I have only had a five-year career so far, dating back to Moonlight. I’m still new. I’m still learning. I’m still evolving.
I do think this is creatively, for me…there are two sides to it. There is the crafts standpoint and the spiritual and emotional standpoint. From a crafts standpoint, this is by far, I think, the most mature version of my filming. I am proud of what we accomplished with this show. There is an element of me as a filmmaker, I went through this phase where I wanted to make everything in 24 hours, or in one location, as a challenge. This kind of combined all those different things. The scale and the scope were amazing, but because there was so much material and so little time, it was almost like a 24-hour film challenge or at least leaning on those muscles to pull it off.
From a spiritual and emotional standpoint, especially coming out of the success of Moonlight, there is a version of my career where I could have decided just to coast and do these things that were challenging to some degree, but not as challenging as this was, and maybe were easier to digest for an audience.
I do feel like…how do I say this? I was a staff writer on season two of The Leftovers, and I was having a hard time in that writer’s room, and I wanted to give up. A good friend of mine, who always keeps it real with me, Darius Clark Monroe, said to me, “Barry, people died for you to have a privilege to sit in that room.” And that has always stayed with me. I know that he didn’t mean that literally writers died so I could become a television staff writer. But, in the story of this country, which is still very young, there were black folks, my ancestors, who died so that I could sit in this house and talk to you on this Zoom. And I think in order to pay forth that spirit, that sacrifice, whatever you want to call it, that life, I have to use my tools and my privileges to tell the stories that speak truth to the experiences of my ancestors. To that degree, or in that way, this is a huge moment in my career. If I never made anything else, anything else, or if somehow I didn’t wake up tomorrow, or if it was decided that nobody wanted to finance my things anymore, I would still be satisfied because of this thing. What do the kids say? I risked it all? I risked it all for this one. And I couldn’t be more proud of it.
Barry Jenkins is Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series and Outstanding Directing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for Amazon Prime Video’s The Underground Railroad.