Barry Jenkins interview: ‘The Underground Railroad’ creator
After receiving three Oscar nominations and one victory for Best Adapted Screenplay for Best Picture-winning “Moonlight” (2016), Barry Jenkins has accrued his first two Emmy citations for his work as an executive producer and the director of Amazon Prime’s 10-episode limited series “The Underground Railroad.” “It’s always an honor to be nominated, especially in this category, because there were a lot of great shows this year,” Jenkins says about being recognized for this show, which bagged a total of seven bids, in the competitive limited/anthology series field at the Emmys. In our exclusive video interview (watch above), he discusses the foregrounding of Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) journey, the depiction of violence on the show, and the show’s significant final installment.
Based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, “The Underground Railroad” follows Cora, a slave who makes a bid for freedom from slaveholding Georgia in the 19th century and, in turn, takes possession of her personhood. Even though Jenkins made a considerable commitment by directing all of the series’ 10 episodes, he avows that there was never any hesitation to take on this challenge. Having also written two episodes and co-written two others, he divulges: “I felt like, especially because it’s an adaptation of a novel, a beloved novel, and a very well-regarded novel that comes from a singular voice — I thought, I can’t write every episode of this show. It’s just not enough time while also prepping the show. So, it just seemed like the place to apply my singular voice was behind the camera, directing.”
The series opens with a montage that strings together various scenes and images that are spread throughout the entire series and concludes with a close-up of Cora’s face. While this montage was scripted, Jenkins reveals that the images that ultimately comprise it could not be specified until he and his creative team had gone through the entire process of making the show. “As Cora goes through this journey, there are so many souls that she’s passing through,” he highlights as he explains the idea behind the opening sequence. Because Cora is arguably bringing these souls with her, Jenkins expounds that he felt as though she would “re-experience all these different persons” in that moment of “falling.” Meanwhile, ending the montage on Cora’s face only reinforces that this story is grounded in her perspective, which Jenkins consciously communicated and reaffirmed with the camera throughout the series. He concludes, “It was always about, even though we’re in a new state, even though we have a completely new ensemble, making sure, with one exception, that Cora is the center of that perspective, that Cora is the center of this new grouping of players.”
Furthermore, Jenkins sheds light on how he and his collaborators handled the show’s graphic depictions of violence, which are featured particularly in the first episode, “Chapter 1: Georgia.” Even though he accentuates that none of the violence depicted is more graphic than “the things that occurred everyday for people like these characters,” he explains that it was ultimately about deciding “when to show, when to tell.” The decision of when to show was based on when the nature of the violence was one “in which the trauma was shared amongst all the groups.” It was a way of illuminating, to some degree, how “the trauma visited upon one became the trauma manifested amongst the community as a way of controlling the community.” However, “there is a fine line — a line between showing something for either a character agency or just for efficacy,” Jenkins continues, underscoring that he and his creative team made certain never to veer into the latter category. Hence, when violence is indeed portrayed, he used the camera to “serve the function of going from the acute trauma” to showing how “the people bearing witness are then being subjected to this communal trauma.”
Finally, Jenkins discusses working on the show’s finale, “Chapter 10: Mabel,” which, as he reveals, was one of the first episodes they shot. It is named after Cora’s mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), who is said to have abandoned her daughter when the latter was 10 years old but, as viewers learn in this episode, actually tragically died trying to do the exact opposite. “The most important thing to me was: I need to understand how and why this Black woman leaves her child — because I can’t create a show where a Black woman leaves her child behind and you not understand how and why that came to be,” Jenkins says with respect to the weight and significance the show’s final installment carries.