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Barry Jenkins on why ‘The Underground Railroad’ is a passion project

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is set in an alternate timeline in the 19th Century featuring an actual railroad to help slaves escape. The Pulitzer prize-winning novel tells the story of two slaves, Cora and Caesar, trying to escape their plantation in Georgia. The book has been adapted into a series by Barry Jenkins, with Thuso Mbedu as Cora and Aaron Pierre as Caesar.

The director, whose Moonlight (2016) won the Best Picture Oscar, describes The Underground Railroad as a passion project. “I actually picked this five years ago,” he says over a video call. “It has been in motion before I had any awards. It has been a long time in gestation. I always wanted to use my voice to create something that involves the story of my ancestors.”

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Adapting the novel was mainly a matter of curation, Jenkins said. “You can’t include everything from the novel in the show. With the things that you pulled from the novel to put into the show, you almost create a new work. I know this thing happened in the book, and so that fills in the space in the show. I had to keep in mind that the viewer is not going to have that context. Adapting was about understanding what from the book was necessary in the creation of the show, all the while being aware that this was a new creation.”

Jenkins uses okra seeds to illustrate his point. “There are these okra seeds that have an important function in the show which is not from the book. Adapting the book wasn’t a difficulty, it was electrifying. One of the beautiful things was understanding the meal we were making using these ingredients from the book. We allowed the thing to evolve. It is like you get to four episodes and you taste it, and you think it needs a little more spice, and then you keep going and taste it again by Episode Seven and think it could use a little more salt. That was what, kept me going through the 116 days (laughs).”

Barry Jenkins on why ‘The Underground Railroad’ is a passion project

Remembering the children

The 41-year-old described the project as challenging. “The subject matter is triggering, in and of itself. Some of these images can be quite triggering for an audience. I also knew that there is an aspect of this period in American history that sometimes feels like the country doesn’t want to acknowledge. All these things create an overwhelming sense of responsibility. And there is the added responsibility of creating a sound work of art. There is a reason for having multiple directors in a television series. It was challenging for me to create a bespoke, tailored experience for each episode, the same way I would have for a feature film.”

The Underground Railroad, Jenkins says, is not about a show about a woman trying to destroy slavery. “It is a 10-episode series about a woman trying to understand her mother’s abandonment. There were children and different forms of parenting throughout the book. I remember, when we were in pre-production, Kanye West saying, slavery was a choice. It really upset me but I was trying to understand what he meant.”

While working on the book, it became clear to Jenkins that one of the choices his ancestors made was to protect these children. “A child would be separated from its parents and so the connection could not form, and yet somehow, no matter where people ended up, they would always protect children. I thought here is something that this show can do. We refer to our ancestors as enslaved, but that is what was done to them, and not what they did. What they did was to try to protect these children, as best they could, so that their descendants could grow up to create shows that are made in their honour.”

All is illuminated

For quite a long time, Jenkins says, one has grown accustomed to images from a certain point of view. “As artists, all we can do is create the images that we feel is within us to create and put them into the world, and hope that folks will see something new, or something illuminating. I felt my goal was to re-contextualise my ancestors in the public consciousness.” He wanted to create or provide a new way of looking at them, because the alternative is to ignore that they ever existed.

“We have to keep creating images and always be aware of what am I adding to the conversation. That was what was so fulfilling about the process. I think everyone from Thuso down to the lowest background extra on the totem pole understood that that is what the task was,” concludes Jenkins.

The Underground Railroad streams on Amazon Prime Video from May 14


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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 4:09:20 AM |

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