Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel The Underground Railroad depicts both the savage reality of American slavery and the danger of escaping it. Much like Gulliver’s Travels, the story takes its fugitive protagonist, Cora, on a fantastical tour through different states via a literal locomotive. Each stop along the way features horrors reminiscent of real-life atrocities. South Carolina is host to a Tuskegee-like experiment on supposedly free Negroes. North Carolina resembles both Nazi Germany and the early Oregon Territory, outlawing the existence of black people altogether. It is a world that requires a deft hand to commit to film, and perhaps no one is better suited than Barry Jenkins. Having brought into vivid reality both the Miami projects of his youth (in the Oscar-winning Moonlight) and James Baldwin’s Harlem (his adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk), Jenkins has experience marrying the terror of being black in America with its beauty. Still, Jenkins’ limited-series adaptation of The Underground Railroad, which debuts May 14th on Amazon Prime, stands as his most ambitious project to date — as the director will tell you himself.
“This show scared the shit out of me,” Jenkins says. “It still scares me. I was looking for a very big apple to take a bite out of. I found that in this show. And I think I had to be terrified of this thing in order to realize I’ve got to pour so much love into it, to really open myself.”
In March, Jenkins sat down with Jamil Smith to discuss making the new series, the challenges of adapting works of literature, and the importance of African American artists reclaiming black narratives. He also reflects on his early days as a filmmaker — carving out his own path to Hollywood by working on shoestring budgets, or for free — and looks ahead to his surprising next project: a virtual-reality Lion King prequel.
“After this film, no one can say, ‘A person who makes a movie like Moonlight can’t make a movie in virtual reality,’” Jenkins says. “Whether that be an indie filmmaker, a black filmmaker, a filmmaker who was born and raised in the projects to a mom addicted to crack cocaine — they can’t say that once we’re done with this. And because of that, I’m going to make the hell out of this movie. That way, whoever walks into that next boardroom to meet with that executive, they can’t say it. Because there’s nothing special about me, bro. I went to Holmes Elementary, and I graduated from Miami Northwestern. There is nothing special about me. These barriers, these false ceilings, I’m just going to keep smashing them down, one by one.”
It’s one of the most in-depth and thoughtful conversations yet in our Rolling Stone Interview series — so much so that we’re running the full hour-long talk here in two parts. Read on for an excerpt, or just dive into the videos above and below.
Why did The Underground Railroad appeal to you as a project to bring to film?
I’d always wanted to make something that told the story of my ancestors and took to task the institution of American slavery, but wasn’t sure what would be the right vessel. When I read Colson’s book, I remembered being a kid and hearing the words “Underground Railroad,” and imagining black folks on trains underground, which was a really amazing feeling. Colson’s novel took me back to that feeling, and I thought, “OK, this is where I can channel this energy.”
What would you have had to compromise to tell this story in a two-hour film instead of 10 episodes of television?
So much. Telling the story over 10 hours would allow us to cover the sweep and the breadth of what this experience may have been like. What must it have felt like to have been these folks? Because my thesis from the very beginning was, there is no way you and I [could] have this conversation right now, in 2021, if there wasn’t some form of light. Through all the brutality and degradation, these people managed to preserve moments of joy, of ecstasy, of beauty. And in order to truthfully convey the weight of those things, we also had to portray the hard images.
There’s a lot of stark realism in this series, but you also have to depict surrealist elements, like the railroad, from the novel. How did you find a balance?
Part of that is due to the great Colson Whitehead. I felt like if we started in a place where you understood the realities of the institution of slavery, then you understand what’s at stake, [and] when the promised land is reached, just how beautiful that must’ve felt. Can you imagine being an enslaved person and walking into the station? You would get down on your knees and smack the ground and touch the metal to make sure it’s real. What Colson did in literalizing the Underground Railroad made me realize that if your personhood is so restricted by this condition, then mentally — oh, my God. You must be going to so many different places.
You have experience in TV, directing episodes of Dear White People. What was it like on this scale?
We shot for 116 days, and before this, the longest shoot for me was Beale Street, which was 35 days. So I’m way out of my depth. It was daunting. [But] also, as we were scouting, looking for spaces to repurpose as sets, we realized this history has been erased. These plantation houses people are getting married at, they’ve been sanitized, if not removed. So we decided to find a plot of land and build it to scale. All the sugar cane, the cotton, the shacks — we built it all. And we decided when we were done to leave it. Because part of the difficulty of telling these stories is it’s very hard to marshal the resources. So when you talk about having this large budget, we’re planting the seeds for more stories on the subject to be told.
In Episode Two, there’s talk of how all of these traumas still live in our bodies. I thought, “Man, if that doesn’t touch upon last summer, I don’t know what does.”
That was one of the things that Colson did so well. By giving the Underground Railroad a fantastical approach, [it allowed] him to speak to so much — the Tuskegee Experiment, the sterilization of our women, the Oregon Exclusionary Acts — freed from the restrictions of American history. We got a black author who I’m sure, in school, American history was restricted from him. And now he’s like, “I’m going to repossess it.”
Is filmmaking therapeutic for you?
Tremendously. I’m very introverted. When I’m making the film, that’s when I feel most in communion with other souls. In this show, near the end, Cora is on the hilltop — I don’t want to say what she’s doing, [but] what you see is one unbroken shot, not planned. I don’t call action, I just start rolling, and she does it. And you have all these people — myself, Thuso [Mbedu, who plays Cora], the guy operating the crane, the focus puller. And then Mother Nature, you’ve got the sun and the wind. All these things are happening in concert. When you are in love with someone, you and that person move in concert at times. Now I’ve got eight people who are all in this dance. That, to me, is love in a way. Because what is life but the struggle for connection, for communion? There are these moments where all these things just click. And that … that’s life, man. It’s just the most beautiful thing.
The Underground Railroad premiered May 14th on Amazon Prime Video. All 10 episodes are available to stream now.