Academy Award nominee Joi McMillon edited five installments of Barry Jenkins‘ 10-episode limited series “The Underground Railroad,” which is based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. In our exclusive video interview, McMillon discusses the importance of ensuring that Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) “perspective is [thoroughly] represented,” the depiction of violence on this show, and finally, two of her upcoming projects. Watch the full video webchat above.
Of the five episodes McMillon edited, the premiere, titled “Georgia,” and the finale, titled “Mabel,” were the first two she worked on. The former opens with a unique montage, which strings together various scenes and images that are spread throughout the entire season and concludes with a close-up of Cora’s face. McMillon explains that she and Jenkins wanted to ensure that what they saw in Cora’s/Mbedu’s eyes would help “connect the audience to her [Cora’s] story.” When viewers first meet Cora, “she’s guarded, but she’s also very intriguing,” describes the editor. In this regard, she accentuates the importance of reminding viewers throughout the series that this show, even when it sometimes focuses on other characters, is grounded in Cora’s story.
Starting work on the finale before diving into her three remaining installments — episodes 5 (“Tennessee — Exodus”), 6 (“Tennessee — Proverbs”) and 9 (“Indiana Winter”) — made McMillon realize not only significance of Cora’s mother Mabel’s (Sheila Atim) journey, but also of that of “Mabel on Cora’s journey.” The fact that Cora feels abandoned by her mother and does not know what ultimately happened to her directly informs her “psyche, mannerisms and how guarded she is about other people in her life,” elucidates McMillon. Hence, the editor wanted to make certain that Mabel, such a lingering presence in Cora’s life, was thoroughly woven into the framework of the season although her story isn’t told until the closing hour.
Both the first and final episodes noticeably feature scenes of intense violence, particularly in form of whippings and burnings. Even though McMillon underlines that the depiction of brutality was never intended to be the main point, she also highlights that “you can’t really tell the story of slavery in America without having some semblance of violence.” It was, however, important to her and the entire creative team to portray it in a way that is “impactful but not overtly grotesque.” During whipping scenes, which were mostly filmed via wide shots, the camera therefore doesn’t stay on the victims throughout but cuts to reaction shots, mostly of other enslaved people. McMillon describes this as depicting the “action” and the bearing witness of “how that violence is impacting other people.”
“I am probably the most proud of that episode,” McMillon says about the ninth installment, “Indiana Winter,” which juggles multiple themes and story developments. After the first half spotlights “hope” and “what could have been,” as the editor herself puts it, the second features the horrific massacre of the Valentine community and Cora’s climactic confrontation with Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton). “It was so important to get it right,” says McMillon about this episode, which “represents so much of our American history and so many of the injustices we face throughout this country.”
“The Underground Railroad” sees the third collaboration to date between Jenkins and McMillon, as the latter co-edited two of the former’s feature films, “Moonlight” (2016) and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018), with Nat Sanders. “Moonlight” took her all the way to the Oscars, where she made history as the first Black woman to nominated for Best Editing. And the collaboration is not stopping here since McMillon will also be working on Jenkins’ upcoming untitled “Lion King” prequel, which, while somewhat familiar, will be a “journey of self-discovery,” so the editor. Her editorial work will also be on display in the upcoming feature “Zola,” which was directed by Janicza Bravo and will be released in U.S. theaters on June 30.
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