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It's Physical Work: Barry Jenkins on The Underground Railroad

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

When “The Underground Railroad” premiered on Amazon Prime Video during the pandemic, some were worried. At a moment when Black bodies were occupying grisly breaking news and haunting police chest cameras, many wondered if it was the right time for a ten-episode limited series set during chattel slavery to grace the screen. Fears persisted about the series conjuring fits of trauma and retreading old ground. It was a knee-jerk reaction that was at once understandable and yet surprising. Surely, Barry Jenkins, who’d be adapting the series from Colson Whitehead’s same-titled Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, had earned the benefit of the doubt by releasing gorgeously wrought, humanist windows into Black life like “Medicine for Melancholy,” “Moonlight,” and “If Beale Street Could Talk."     

Told elegantly, with unfettered truthfulness, “The Underground Railroad” takes great care to tell the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu)—an enslaved woman seemingly abandoned long ago by her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), who decides to flee with her lover Caesar (Aaron Pierre) away from their plantation toward freedom. They are pursued by a brutal slave catcher, Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), and his Black adolescent assistant, Homer (Chase W. Dillon). Cora’s journey takes her westward through the south, where she encounters death and heartache, and fleeting instances of love and joy on lush and barren landscapes that can sometimes briefly obscure a nightmarish surreality while igniting a metaphysical awakening. All the while, composer Nicholas Britell’s achingly transportive score and DP James Laxton’s splendid photography give life to not just Cora’s story in conjunction with the series’ deep ensemble but also the thrilling magical reality of the underground railroad quite literally being a subterranean train. 

Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” requires faith not unlike that which beckons one to plant okra in the ground for the next generation. “The Gaze,” the art piece he released on Vimeo the day of the series premiere, is another act of faith. It is a wordless prayer composed of Black folks’ resolute portraits, of open palms facing toward the sky, of the essence of Black light pouring forth from unbowed souls. The two in conversation do not merely prove the benefit of the doubt. They annihilate any reason to question how Jenkins and his tight-knit band of artist collaborators could deliver on the enormity of their task: To give voice to ancestors. 

Now, “The Underground Railroad” is being added to the Criterion Collection through an immaculately composed release that’ll include all ten episodes and “The Gaze,” commentary tracks, deleted scenes, teasers, a short program about the building of the underground railroad, a graphic novel adaptation of an unfilmed chapter of "The Underground Railroad,” and an essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién. 

Barry Jenkins spoke to over Zoom about the creation of “The Gaze,” the tension of filming beauty and horror at once, and how “The Underground Railroad” fits within his career.      

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

In your introduction to this release’s commentary track, you said that you’d like audiences to view each episode’s commentary track in the order you shot them, which of course is non-linear in relation to the narrative of the series. What was the thought process behind that?

You’ve seen the show, but if you haven't seen the show, you should watch it [episode] one through ten [Laughs]. But whenever we release physical media, I always think of the way I first encountered physical media, which was primarily in film school and watching the things that other directors I admired had done and trying to understand, if not exactly how they did it or why they did it, what they were going through as they were creating it. And so with this show, particularly because there's so much of it—there's so much filmmaking—I just felt, putting myself in my film school shoes, it would be really interesting to go on the journey of: Oh, we were doing this, and it aesthetically felt this way. And then when we learned this thing, we started to shift and do things that way. 

The other thing, too, is that it's a narrative. As opposed to just watching the episodes with the commentary in isolation to try to understand or figure out that camera move or this performance trick, you could really go on a journey. There's the one journey within the show with the characters, then it's the journey with us as the filmmakers. That was the thing about the release that I found most interesting. Because the show came out during the pandemic, we didn't really get to go out with it the way we normally do with our work and actually engage with the audience and speak to people—this was an opportunity to do that.

The last time we talked about “The Underground Railroad,” we didn’t speak about “The Gaze,” mostly because it was so fresh and new. I watched it after I finished watching the series. My partner, however, watched it first, before she started “The Underground Railroad.” 


She then returned to it when she finished, which was fascinating. Is there a specific moment in relation to the series at which you think audiences should watch “The Gaze”?

I don't know. It never occurred to me because “The Gaze” wasn't this intentional thing. It just kind of happened as we were making the show. I felt like people should watch it before they watch the show because I released it before the show was released. But it's not necessary to do so. 

We recently screened the entire show of “The Underground Railroad” in Berkeley at the Pacific Film Archive in the theater over three days and three nights, which was an awesome experience. We scheduled “‘The Gaze” the morning of the last three episodes. So we showed it after “Fanny Briggs,” but before the two “Indiana” episodes and “Mabel,” which was a very fascinating place, I think, for the audience to encounter that piece. Especially because there are certain puzzle pieces at the end of “The Gaze” that are clues to some things that happen at the end of “Indiana Winter.” 

And yet, I don't know. I think your partner's experience is very interesting—watching it before and then after as well—because maybe those images take on a different code when you've gone through the experience of watching the show.

Yeah. I mean, by watching it at the end, I could easily piece certain shots together because I already have a built-in connection with these people. And even many of the characters I don't recognize, say in the background, made me want to rewatch and retrace the entire series. But I find beginning with it out of any context so fascinating because you’re not approaching these characters as characters within a series. You’re seeing them wholly as human.

There's something freeing about having a story or narrative structure to go through an experience with the character, but there's also something restrictive in it. And so with “The Gaze,” in putting it together, it was good to be completely divorced from the show's narrative. When we were filming those portraits, I didn't give any direction to the actors. My one direction, which, thinking of it now, maybe was a bit glib, was: Show me yourself.  

And yet, I was surprised at how consistent the expressions were. Maybe it was the period dress. Maybe it was the feeling of being in the making of the show. Because everyone in that piece is making the show. There was something about it that surprised me. Again, the footage was sitting there for about six months, and then I finally woke up one morning and was like: Oh, we should do something with this? That was maybe two weeks before the show dropped. [Laughs] So it happened at the very last minute.

From my understanding, “The Gaze” began as five hours of footage before one of the series’ editors fashioned an initial one-hour cut. After that, it went through several more edits, switching footage here and there. As you were editing, did you have an unspoken narrative throughline in mind?

Yeah, I said we were going to go in the show’s chronology. Because there was just so much footage, it helped Daniel Morfesis, who cut it together, have a very simple, logical, organizing principle. The biggest thing that happened from the first version of it to the version that I put on Vimeo was: Okay, when does this become narrative? Or when does something in this become like a clue to narrative in the show? So there were some wonderful portraits in the show that aren't in “The Gaze,” even though I was like: Ah, this would fit perfectly, right here. I think the only one we kept was the group shot in the cotton field. That's in both just because that just spoke to everything.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Throughout the series, there is tension between the beauty we’re seeing, the gorgeous photography of these landscapes, and the horrid actions that occurred on them. I think “The Gaze” is the most extreme, particularly because its silence leaves space to both marvel and imagine the sorrow. How did you balance that tension throughout the series? 

It wasn't even about trying to balance it. We made the show so fast, 500 pages in 116 days—that's about 12 days per hour-long episode. Because of that, we weren’t putting up massive lights and we weren’t waiting for light to shoot at these perfect moments. It's just in the environment that we're in. Anywhere you look, something equally barbaric and beautiful is occurring in the frame. I felt very steadfastly it would've been false to try to create an image that wasn't typically beautiful. Because beauty is different depending on a person's perspective, we would have had to get into the DI and purposely desaturate the image and chop all the highlights. That would've been a falsehood in and of itself.

It was something of a journey always to be mindful of because there is a place where, because of the gravity or the graveness of some of the images we were conjuring, it could almost seem in poor taste to record those things with this imagery that is so “beautiful.” And the truth of it was, it was just always there. It was shocking. 

The clearest example is the death of Big Anthony, where a kind of celestial light shines through his body. 

And that's just the sun. It is just the sun. And that's an actual house that has been there for centuries. We were out in the yard where that thing would've taken place, and the camera's just there, moving around, and then it looked over and boom, there it was. Now the choice would've been: Okay, well let's wait until that's not there. Or let's not film from this angle. But then what is that doing? This is natural; this is mother nature in the state of Georgia. In this place where I know things like this occurred, the point was, despite all this abject beauty, despite just this splendid landscape, despite the presence of God and the beauty of all this natural environment, these horrific things were still perpetrated on other godly beings—which is absolutely insane. To me, it spoke to the insanity of the enterprise, the madness, the barbarity.

I noticed there are two deleted scenes connected to the “North Carolina” episode, which feature the character Grace/Fanny Briggs (Mychal-Bella Bowman). The character is actually from Colson Whitehead’s previous novel “The Intuitionist!” What inspired you to include her in the series? 

There's just so much about mothering in the book, and, in particular in Cora's story, her having this deep psychic wound of being abandoned by her mother. I thought it would be a really wonderful opportunity for her to go on this journey and through a very real practical life lesson, maybe get closer to the difficulty of the limited choices of her mother. And so the embodiment of this character, Fanny Briggs, who occupies the crawlspace with Cora, it seemed like a really wonderful opportunity to give her this very real, lived example that can maybe bring her closer to understanding a thing that she really has no way to understand. Because Cora didn't get to speak to her mother about it. And then, with the episode of “Fanny Briggs,” I didn't want to create this character and then just break the audience's heart by having her befall the fate that at that point in the narrative, you expect characters that Cora comes in contact with to suffer. It was a thing that we built in the writer's room. 

The deleted scenes from those episodes, “North Carolina” and “Fanny Briggs,” are some of the ones I'm really happy are on the disc because they do complete a certain aspect of that narrative in “North Carolina.”

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

To go more into the deleted scenes: There is a kind of infomercial advertising the Griffith Institute in the “South Carolina” episode. It feels so tonally different from much of the series; it almost feels like it could be in the “Atlanta” episode “B.A.N.” What was the initial thought process for that scene?

I'm always trying to imagine what it's gonna be like for the audience to experience the show. And the first episode is heavy. It's just really, really heavy. Maybe there needed to be a tonal reset at the top of the second episode, and that's where the infomercial idea came from. The interesting thing is that we use portraits that end up in “The Gaze” in the infomercial. So, it's fascinating how images can be coded in different ways. At the end of the day, it just felt like, tonally, the shift was too jarring. 

But I love that process when you get into the edit. That episode could have gone out with the infomercial at the top. What would that do to an audience member? How would that affect the very personal journey you're going on with Cora? Because that would’ve been a very impersonal opening if I'm being honest. So we didn't use it. But now you've got to see it and chuckle a little bit [Laughs] at the idea of what it would've been.

I was trying to imagine where you would have even put it. And, of course, the top of the episode makes sense. 

It would've been a cold open, just a cold open. That's what I mean: a complete reset from the ending of the first episode. Again, I try to ask what is the experience gonna be? Bombs Over Baghdad starts playing. After 15 seconds, the ticker goes 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and then boom, you're in this infomercial. But it was a cheat. So we didn't do it.

It almost feels a bit too cute, a bit too obvious.


There are also two deleted scenes with Homer, where he meets two Black men who own a dry cleaning business. 

It's fascinating because the original patent for a dry scouring machine was by a Black man.


And so it was like, it's history folks [Laughs].

But it’s also fascinating because these are the only two kind interactions he has with Black folks in the entire series.

Robert, this is what it is to make a thing. We're talking about these two scenes with Homer. We've talked about the infomercial opening. Again, these are kind, gentle things, funny things. One of my favorite deleted scenes on the whole disc is in “North Carolina.” After Martin dynamites the mine, he comes back and tells the story of his dad, why his dad was an abolitionist, why he did these things, and the burden his dad has placed on him. At the very end of the scene, Grace, from the mouths of babes, says, “You feel like a slave.” He looks up at her, Cora hushes her, takes the girl back up in the attic, and as Martin's going down, Cora grabs Martin and goes: “What were you doing with that little girl up in the attic and your wife not knowing?”

I felt that the scene was important while making the show. The way Damon [Herriman] performs his response—he says, “I would never.”—is so intense you know that was not happening. Now, for me, I wanted that information for the audience. This wasn't something that I felt was organically needed to be a part of the narrative. I wanted the information for the audience. Same with Homer. Here's this kid, and the actor doing such a great job. Because he is just a child, I wanted the audience to have just a moment with him that was tender and gentle. But you know that's not the narrative. That's why those were deleted scenes and not those included in the show. 

I was just at a Q&A at Berkeley, and I was describing that scene on the disc–because we had already sent it off to Criterion—and people in the audience when I said: He meets these guys, and they wash his suit. They went: Ahhhhhh. I said: See, see. Exactly. That is why [Laughs] it's not in the show. But they’re on the release, so people can see them. I think, again, going back to the idea of recording the commentary in the order that we filmed it, it's important for young filmmakers to see the choices we make as we create these things. We film the scenes and some of those scenes are great. They're very strong. But just because they're strong scenes doesn't mean they belong in the show. It doesn't mean they belong as a part of our narrative.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

As I’ve gone through and returned to your work, it’s always felt like “The Underground Railroad” was an aesthetic and sonic culmination of what you and your team—Nicholas Brittell, James Laxton, Joi McMillon—had been unconsciously or consciously striving toward. Sight unseen, “Mufasa” feels like a total departure, and a leaving of one era in your career to the next. Do you see your career separated by eras?

I don't [Laughs] As someone who grew up where I grew up, imposter syndrome will probably always be a part of my life. Having an era or a legacy doesn't mean anything to me. I'm moving piece to piece. And in moving piece to piece, the one thing I will say is those three works: “Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “The Underground Railroad," all are a piece. They're of a very similar tone. They're of somewhat similar themes. They have a similar feel. The movie I'm doing now was about doing something that did not feel like that at all. That wasn't made physically in the way those things were made. 

The least I'll say about it is, at a certain point, making a film is physical work. It's not just sitting in a coffee shop thinking of images. It starts to take a physical toll. Part of taking this job, there are individual layers to it, was getting to work differently, just for a bit. I knew that bit would be a few years, which maybe that was the amount of time I needed to be away from being in 95-degree swamps, trying to figure out how to make your days. 

But the other thing is there's always a feeling I'm chasing in these works. That feeling usually manifests as an image that I can see and the feeling that corresponds to it. Even in this piece I'm doing now in “Mufasa,” there was something in the script that was a feeling, and I knew the tools would be completely different. The challenge was, can you conjure the same kind of feeling with these tools? In a way, maybe it's an aesthetic risk because the tools are so different from the ones I normally work with. But that's energy, man. I could make another 10-hour show similar to “The Underground Railroad” right now. I could do that. But that would probably amount to the same kind of risk and generate the same energy. I wanted to try something different.

When “Medicine for Melancholy” was added to the Criterion Collection, you mentioned some reticence about being worthy of addition. Did you feel the same reticence with this, especially since Criterion rarely adds television? 

They don't often add television, but they do. When the “Dekalog” hit Criterion, I was like: HELL. YES. When “Carlos” hit the Criterion Collection, I was like: HELL. YES. When “Small Axe” hit the Criterion Collection, I was like: HELL. YES. And when the opportunity came to put this thing in the Collection: HELL. YES. ROBERT. I put my whole soul into the show, my whole soul. 

And to me, Criterion—this is what I had to learn through the process of speaking to them about “Medicine For Melancholy” and my own imposter syndrome hang-ups—is not about the idea that the films in the Criterion Collection are the greatest masterpieces ever. Although many of them are. It is about having a historical record of what we did as a species, telling stories with sounds and images. In that sense, the work I've done that is in the Collection, I feel very good about it being there alongside many people who I admire greatly. With this show in particular, I'm very pleased and honored because of the things we got to do, telling the story in a much more robust way.

I’m happy to know that, unlike in “Medicine for Melancholy,” John Waters didn’t have to swing in and save the day by convincing you to say yes. 

No, it was not. Although I am thankful to John for nudging me to get off my ass and accept the distinction. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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