After directing the meditative “Medicine for Melancholy,” the Best Picture winning “Moonlight,” and the sumptuous “If Beale Street Could Talk”—Barry Jenkins could have opted for less demanding material. Very few would have blamed him. In a climate weary of trauma, he instead chose the riskiest bet—a slave narrative. “The Underground Railroad,” adapted by Jenkins from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel, is a ten-hour fantastical epic following Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a Georgia slave, who with Caesar (Aaron Pierre), escapes from their antebellum plantation toward freedom by way of real locomotives, in real tunnels, with real stationhouses.
Cora’s ten-episode journey finds her evading capture from ruthless slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his young Black protégé Homer (Chase Dillon) by traversing glittering states, apocalyptic landscapes, and Edenic countrysides. All the while she wrestles with love and loss, and the deep-seeded anger she holds against her mother for abandoning her all those years ago. These humanistic themes are why “The Underground Railroad” succeeds where other slave narratives have failed: The show addresses these characters as living, breathing people first. Not merely as magnets for dehumanization and brutalization.
In addition to the miniseries, through Vimeo, Jenkins shared a 50-minute prologue entitled “The Gaze.” The short non-narrative film affectingly presents a series of tableaux wherein individual slaves—portrayed by the show’s vast number of talented extras—unflinchingly stand in fields with resoluteness and sometimes joy. It is the Black gaze captured to startling effect. The two projects also reteam the “Moonlight” director with longtime collaborators composer Nicholas Brittell and cinematographer James Laxton for the trio’s most enlivening work yet.
Jenkins spoke with RogerEbert.com about weaponizing trauma, Black America’s Manifest Destiny and the remembrance of ancestors.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
As an intro to “The Gaze,” you wrote about the moments where you were captured by a spirit and you decided to record these portraitures. What other feelings swirled around you as you were making “The Underground Railroad?”
So many feelings, especially because we made the show entirely in the state of Georgia. It was hard to not to either remember or not visualize the actual history that we were recreating. The things that actually had to have happened in the space as we were working: the voices, the bodies of the people who once walked there.
Right after “Moonlight” I went to the Yucatan in Mexico. I went to this place called Uxmal, where a few Mayan structures still stand. And of course the original inhabitants just vanished, almost lost to time. Walking those spaces, I just kept imagining what it must have been like when this place was full. When it was whole. I had the same feeling while making the show. The difference was I had a camera and I had these people embodying what I was now visualizing. That's where this idea to capture it came from. And it's expensive because every time we're capturing one of those portraitures, we're not shooting a scene for the show. So there's this balance you have to strike: is this moment worth capturing? And I think at every step of the way it was.
Do you think the energies of our ancestors can still be felt when we're in certain spaces?
I have to. I don't have an academic background. I'm not a fine artist. I'm just working purely off emotion and feeling. In those shots: what you're seeing is myself, the actors, the crew, especially James [Laxton] responding to this feeling. People have been talking to me about this moment following the Big Anthony (Elijah Everett) scene where I walked off set. In that moment there was no blood. No fire. The actor’s on a harness. But it was knowing these things happened. That was the thing that became overwhelming. That's why I walked off set.
Thinking back toward Joel Edgerton's monologues: More than a few directors would have relied on flashbacks in the scenes where he explains Caesar and Lovey’s fate (Zsane Jhe). But your lens stays in the scene with these two actors. What was the thought process behind staging the monologues, especially with regards to navigating what trauma was and wasn’t worth showing?
If I could, I would've told it all and not shown. There are moments where Joel as Ridgeway is telling these stories and what we're showing is their effect on the person who’s hearing them. There's this idea of witnessing throughout the show that is very important. We have this character Hezekiah (Jeremiah Eric Westbrook). He’s the kid in “Georgia,” and he's always there as a witness when these things happen. He also shows up in “Indiana - Autumn.” As Cora first walks into the atrium, we do this steady-cam shot where Hezekiah is now watching her.
And so this idea of witnessing was very important because this show begins with a character who's given up all hope; who doesn't believe in herself; who doesn't believe in the world. It was imperative to show the Big Anthony scene because as a story format, this is the catalyst that shakes her out of this malaise. It makes her decide to leave. And I felt like that catalyst was so extreme it demanded to be shown. It's why we come off of Big Anthony and pan and pan until we land on the two faces who are now motivated to run.
To show anywhere else is unnecessary. Because what’s more powerful than watching this woman—When there's no cut. No artifice. No fake tears—ingest this story? You can see how Ridgeway weaponizes trauma. That's way more powerful than us cutting to Lovey on a spike. You’ve already witnessed how far this can go. So it was always a delicate balance of negotiating what we show and what we tell. Most of the showing is done, unfortunately, in episode one. But man, I tried so hard. Because initially I thought maybe “Georgia” could be the fifth episode and we could do a big flashback to the beginning. But I mean, that's just not the truth.
You did a panel with Variety’s Angelique Jackson where you mentioned how a television series allows you to have those heavy moments while knowing the audience has time to rebound. How much more freedom did you feel in a series format as opposed to a cinematic form?
A film is a very bespoke process. We had about the same amount of prep time leading up to the shoot. But of course you're prepping a lot less material: You take three months to figure out how to film forty-eight scenes. In this case, you take three months to figure out how to film 300 scenes. And yet this was the most organic process: whether it was the elements or being moved by these spaces, whether it was the crew or the actors, you could really respond to what was happening and allow that to generate the story.
Aaron Pierre is in that first “Indiana” episode only because I knew I was losing him. He was flying back to London. We initially weren't going to shoot the hub scene until eight months later. We had all our underground tunnels and the dorms for “South Carolina” at the rail museum we used for filming. And we had this train turntable. I know I’ve got to use this turntable somehow. While trying to figure things out, I did some drinking, and it finally came to me on a Saturday: She's going to walk out. She's going to hear his voice. He's there. And they are going to dance. I wrote it. And then boom we did it.
While we were scouting for the hub, once again, I'm hung over because we had just wrapped “Indiana” and John Valentine (Peter De Jersey), Lori Valentine (Amber Gray), Royal (William Jackson Harper), and Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji) all took me out and bought me shots. They got me lit. The next day I'm scouting and we walk into this room and I go, “Man - Wouldn't it be weird if she walked in here and she's looking at her plot?” This was the hangover brain talking, but Mark Friedberg was like, “Yeah, that would be cool.”
On a television show, if I know I'm going to film that other scene in three weeks, I begin writing because now I know I can go and narratively travel. I've never been able to do that on a feature because if you make such a sudden veer there's very few scenes in between the moment you're changing and the moment you’ve scripted to allow the reverberations to organically set in. As far as the way I like to work, which is responding to what's happening in the moment, it was so much extreme freedom.
Chase Dillon is incredible as Homer, where did you discover him and what made him right for the role?
We actually screen tested Chase the same day we screen tested Thuso. They were both in LA. But we didn't put them together for some reason. There was one scene with just the two of them that we shot in the second “Tennessee” episode. Cora actually asks him: Look at me, I'm in chains, but you choose to be here. Why are you doing this? But it was a little too on the nose, so we cut it.
This does give me a chance to shout-out Don McManus. He was in “Vice.” He came in and he screen tested with Chase. So shout-out to Don. But it was really clear with Chase, not that he understood the character, but that he wanted to be an old soul. He wanted to move in the way adults move, to think in the way adults think. Because of that, talking about the character now, it makes Homer very susceptible to manipulation, to grooming, to indoctrination. Which is what I think the relationship between Ridgeway and Homer is all about, even though people keep saying it was a great father-son relationship. No—it’s a relationship predicated upon indoctrination and grooming.
In Whitehead's novel, the relationship between Ridgeway and his father is only lightly alluded to, but here it's fully sketched out. What drew you to that dynamic?
When I’m making an adaptation, I always trust my gut. That's what makes talking about these things so tricky. Because I can talk about all the choices and make it seem like I knew exactly what I was doing. I think when you edit something, you really start to understand why you did things. But in the beginning, it's all gut and instinct. And there was something in that line about The Great Spirit: “The Great Spirit flows through everything. And if a man can work it then the spirit is in and within him.” That wasn’t what I expected to hear in the home of Ridgeway. I thought there was something really powerful and very fascinating about exploring it.
I knew in some way I was going to be questioned: Why are we spending time in the childhood of this character? I think we should interrogate the things that we assume. We had this young writer in the writer's room named Adrienne Rush, who went to my film school, and she was actually the writer's room assistant but I knew she was a big Faulkner-head. As one of the few white people in the room, I thought you should take a stab at this. And she did a really wonderful job with it. Once I understood this guy has daddy issues, then it became something worth exploring. We even created a Great Spirit light. During the Clair de Lune sequence, there's this really big shot that cranes and pushes into Thuso. The reason why it gets brighter is because there's a Great Spirit light attached to the crane. The sequence in episode one with Chester, when Cora throws herself to shield him, the tableaux we cut to are also filmed with the Great Spirit light.
The second half of the series subverts the historical theory of Manifest Destiny, do you think that Black America has a Manifest destiny? And if so, what is it?
Ooh that’s a heavy question. You know, again, I'm just a dude. I'm not an academic. I have an undergrad degree from Florida State so sometimes I feel like I'm punching above my weight while speaking on these things. But if you had asked me before making the show, I would have said that's an arcane concept and not applicable to anything happening in the real world. After making the show, it crystallized for me how the impossibility of our existence has made me feel like there is some manifest destiny.
What is the aim of it? I don't know. It's clear for a character like Ridgeway, Manifest Destiny reconciles itself in destruction and degradation. I think of Black folks as completely filled with light. Making the show certainly affirmed that. But if you ask me where we’re going, man, I make things not proclamations. But our lives certainly have purpose and meaning, and I hope that’s something someone takes from the show.
There's also this component within Manifest Destiny of there being a sense of luck. And even the notion of escape from slavery, while there’s obviously great determination and strength that’s required, there’s also an element of good fortune that can guide one to safety. Have you ever felt a sense of luck in your career?
I feel lucky for sure. But I don't feel a sense of luck, as though the universe is operating in my favor. Only because I don't want to feel like a passenger or a passive participant in my own life. I love that Cora interrogates that same thing. People keep telling her she's special all the time, but what good is a farm if only special people can till it? What good is a railroad if only special folks can take it? I kind of want to disempower this idea of luck and fate. I want to place the onus back on us as being proactive. Because it also allows us to take credit. I want to give my ancestors credit. The Civil War didn’t just end and now Black folks have gone on and endured. These people lived. It wasn't luck. It was tenacity, hard work, fortitude, and a strength that is allowing you and I to have this conversation right now.
Your series reminded me of how often I consider what it would be like to go back into time and talk with my ancestors. That is, what would I tell them? If you could go back into time, what would you tell your ancestors?
A Jewish friend of mine sent me the acceptance speech for “Schindler's List” from when it won Best Picture. I didn’t talk about it at all because I don’t want it to seem like I'm mentioning this because it's associated with an award. But Steven Spielberg gets up. He says something to the effect that there are 350,000 survivors of the Holocaust living right now. Utilize them. Do not allow this history to go erased. Then he brings up someone who was actually in Auschwitz, in the concentration camps. He says people died in front of me in the camps. Their last words were “Be a witness of my murder. Tell the world how I died.” So if I could go back and talk to my ancestors, one thing I would say is “I will not forget you. I will make sure that we remember you and your vision.”
Making this show with advisers like Ms. Wendy and Mr. And Mrs. King: seeing them not recreate these ancestors through a prism of dehumanization, but through the prism of celebration by unearthing the strength, the love and the beauty—I would just hang out. We open the show with Jockey's party, which Colson gifted us from the book, and there was a moment on set where I was talking to the producers. We had all these backgrounds and they were dancing, but the producers were worried about how we were going to get music that would make this dance feel organic?
I said I don't know what it's going to cost us, but if we let them make the music, I guarantee they will make the music. And people looked at me like I was dumb. So I get on the bullhorn and go, “Hey, so we’re going to do a take. I just want y'all to express yourself and have a good time.” And they did. When we cut to that shot and we come over the raccoon, what you're hearing is the actual background. It's amazing to see 400 people start a rhythm or a clap. Somebody starts singing and then a space opens up. People are dancing. We had Mashama Bailey, who runs this restaurant in Savannah, The Grey, she came out and made all the plates. We had some yams and crawfish, and I would sit down with a plate and just enjoy being amongst my people.
"The Underground Railroad" is on Amazon Prime now.