For Barry Jenkins, adapting Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad has been a rewarding, all-consuming task.
“This has kind of been my life since this book was published,” he said in a Zoom interview with Shadow And Act on Friday ahead of the latest teaser release this Monday. “Even though we made a film in between [developing the adaptation], we actually did the writers’ room for the show before we shot If Beale Street Could Talk. So it’s kind of been a constant for me.”
“It’s really cool now to go from reading the book and having images in my head, [writing] new scripts, [having] the writers’ room and all our lovely writers and actors [to] now the images coalescing and [presenting] them. So that’s pretty cool.”
Jenkins and his core creative team, including cinematographer James Laxton and editor Joi McMillon, have evolved over their time of working together, Jenkins said. He said their collective voice has grown with the characters they want to investigate and the stories they want to tell. But The Underground Railroad provided him with a new opportunity to tell a story that spans episodes, much different than his usual medium of film. His goal is to provide a “multifaceted” tale of characters “without judgment.”
The jist of that story revolves around the series’ main character Cora (Thuso Mbedu). She journeys to freedom via the Underground Railroad, depicted as a literal railroad conducted by Black Americans. Cora wants her liberty by any means necessary, even if it means engaging in actions that could haunt her for the rest of her life.
Even though The Underground Railroad includes a fantastical version of the route slaves embarked toward freedom, Jenkins wants to make sure viewers are taken on Cora’s personal journey and experience the humanity of a person striving to live out her inalienable rights.
You think of a story set in this subject matter would be only brutal and bleak and painful and traumatic,” he said. “I know trauma is a word that we associate with a story like this. And yet, I felt like from the moment I read the book and the moment I saw the telestory set in this world, that in order for you and me to be sitting here having this conversation in 2021, there had to have been love. There had to have been beauty. There certainly was community, despite all the efforts to break the bonds of family, love, and community.”
“This show isn’t a show about slavery. It’s a show about the character Cora,” he continued. “I think when we talk about slavery, in a way, we almost dehumanize the folks who were enslaved against their will. We almost rob them of their personhood. We assume the condition of being enslaved was the totality of their experience and the totality of their humanity.”
One way Jenkins explored Cora and other enslaved people’s complex interior lives is evident in the latest teaser. The teaser showcases a series of images from the series running backward, along with accompanying music that sounds like it’s both being played back and forward at the same time. The dream-like feeling Jenkins created stemmed from his desire to “rewind” moments in history and undo them.
“I was describing to one of our editors how sometimes I watch these things, and in watching them, I immediately rewind them,” he said. “I want to undo them. I want them not to happen. [Composer Nicholas Britell] and I were working on the score, and I was like, I just have this feeling of, as they say, ‘history is written by the victors.’ And you know, when I grew up, if something bad happened, [you would hear] ‘let’s run it back.'” And I felt like making the show for me was kind of about this attempt to run it back.”
The idea of running things back led Jenkins to task Britell with the task of creating a score that “can have as much beauty and as much resonance played backwards and forwards.” That idea also coalesced into having his editor use the music to find clips from the series that would be as gripping played forwards and backward.
The concept of undoing or rewinding meshed with Jenkins’ exploration of enslaved people and their ability to think beyond their current limitations. As he said throughout the interview, for us as Black people to exist to have this conversation about The Underground Railroad–indeed, for The Underground Railroad to even be written by a Black author—they must have assumed the possibilities for a better future were tangible.
“I think we stumble into these conversations where, in order to really delve into the possibilities of Black consciousness, it has to be labeled ‘Afrofuturism,’ but that assumes that our ancestors didn’t have other states of consciousness,” he said. “It assumes they didn’t have dreams. And so it’s why I think the idea of paring ‘Afrofuturism’ to folks that came before us, we again assume depictions of enslaved people need to be reductive because we assume their lives were reduced. And yet, their minds, I think had to have been free…Our ancestors [must have], in some way, free their minds from their physical conditions to sustain themselves and to manifest and sustain the bonds that I think had to be present in order for you and I to have this conversation.”
“…I think if you get inside that [experience] and you investigate and study the emotions, the psychological and spiritual effects of that trauma and who our folks had to have defeated it order for you and I to have this conversation, then you arrive at something that I think goes beyond the literal depiction of this act or that act. It gets into the spiritual depiction of it,” he continued.
He said he told Colson how his book “unpacked” the problem of thinking about slavery by focusing on the personal experiences of Cora and the other characters in the book. By unpacking the characters, their motivations, and experiences, Jenkins said the book addressed the way “we speak of the condition of slavery, of people who were enslaved, [summing] them in totality of the condition of being enslaved.”
“There is a lot of character work around what these characters did,” he said. “You know, some of them were people who planted [and] nursed vegetation [and] gardens for their own sustenance. Some of them were blacksmiths, who built things with their hands. Those things have nothing to do with the condition of being enslaved. Those people have the same vocations the same way you and I [have].”
Jenkins said he told Colson he would agree to adapt the book for screen only if he could tell the story as a series.
“I want to have the opportunity to go past the assumptions of the conditions of an enslaved person and past the reductions of humanity of an enslaved person,” he said. “I think to do that, I need 10 hours. I need 10 episodes. I can’t do it in two hours. And I’m glad he said, ‘I agree.'”
Our ancestors’ expansive thought drives The Underground Railroad’s story, even in ways that surprised Jenkins himself.
“We were location scouting…and I was standing in this big-ass cotton field, and I got really emotional,” he said. “But the emotion wasn’t sadness and it certainly wasn’t shame, which is something that we associate with depictions of this particular trauma, although I feel like the same isn’t ours–it is certainly their’s [slave owners and their descendants].”
“I looked around and I realized that at that moment, I could afford to buy all the cotton in that field and burn it to the f—king ground,” he continued. “And I couldn’t imagine anyone who stood in that field could imagine that there would be a day when that was the case. And then I caught myself and I said, ‘You know, they had to have had, because they kept [going], and this is why you and I are here and are able to have this conversation. So yeah, it’s trippy stuff.”
Jenkins said bringing The Underground Railroad to screen has been “the most intense thing I’ve done in my life.” Fans of Jenkins’ will need to prepare to be taken on an intensely personal and deeply affecting ride.
The Underground Railroad premieres in 2021 on Amazon Prime.