Barry Jenkins interview: ‘The Underground Railroad’ director/creator
“I wanted to tell this show as a limited series and not as a feature,” admits Barry Jenkins about adapting “The Underground Railroad” for the small screen. “I want the audience to experience the entire spectrum of emotions that a character like Cora might experience,” he explains.
“She’s just a woman, you know. She’s not famous. She wasn’t some notable abolitionist and those people are great and we should tell their stories, but I love that we could turn the camera on any face in the frame and they would have a story worth spending 10 hours with, and over the course of those 10 hours and experience life through their eyes, walking a mile in their shoes, that yes, would activate empathy in the audience.”
We talked with the Oscar winner (for “Moonlight”) as part of Gold Derby’s special “Meet the Experts” Q&A roundtable event with 2022 Directors Guild Awards nominees. Watch our exclusive video interview above.
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Jenkins adapted the Amazon Prime limited series “The Underground Railroad” on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, directing all 10 episodes of the series. South African actress Thuso Mbedu stars as Cora Randall, an enslaved girl who escapes the plantation of her birth, in a quest for freedom on the titular underground railroad. The show’s cast also includes previous Emmy nominees William Jackson Harper and Peter Mullan, Tony Award nominees Lily Rabe and Amber Gray, as well as Sheila Atim, Chase W. Dillon, Joel Edgerton and Aaron Pierre.
As the series follows Cora’s journey to salvation, it contemplates the deep wounds afflicting America from its dark past through Jenkins’ trademark film-making style, in which he employs an impressionistic and dreamlike visual and aural aesthetic to capture the brutality faced by enslaved African-Americans in the mid-1800s. In reality, while the “underground railroad” was actually a network of abolitionists, hidden routes and safe houses that helped enslaved men, women and children escape, the series (like the novel on which it is based) dramatizes it as a subterranean railroad complete with engineers, conductors, tracks and tunnels, stealthily transporting escapees to the promise of a better life.
The series opens in what has become a hallmark of Jenkins’ impressionistic directorial style, as Cora falls in slow motion down a well, presenting us with imagery that is both breathtaking and horrifying. “Making a show about my ancestors, about the enslaved, typically they’re frozen in time, and they predate most of the technology that we have for capturing people’s images,” Jenkins explains about what drives his unique style of film-making. “In recreating these images and reanimating their stories, we felt like we wanted to allow the audience to get past this almost frozen in time, surface depiction that we have with them; and allow the audience to go inside their consciousness,” he says, adding that “as I’m reading the work of Colson Whitehead or reading the work of James Baldwin, I’m seeing things and those things aren’t tethered to a narrative, they aren’t linear,” he explains.
“The Underground Railroad” was one the most critically acclaimed series of last year with an impressive 94 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, lauded for the compelling performances by its cast and its breathtaking visuals. Jenkins, a previous Oscar winner for his “Moonlight” screenplay in 2018, scored his first two Emmy nominations last fall, for directing and also as the show’s producer in the competitive Best Limited Series category. He is nominated by the DGA this year for directing all 10 episodes of the series.