Director Barry Jenkins’s body of work to date demonstrates an exquisite devotion to the art of blackness as an aesthetic and cultural practice. On the occasion of Jenkins’ latest work—the television adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 book, The Underground Railroad—Film Quarterly contributor Michael Gillespie speaks with Jenkins about his craft, his process, and his acutely cinephilic attention to black visual and expressive culture. The series poses a stunningly exacting sense of the slave narrative coupled with an ambitious charting of antebellum nineteenth-century America, at once familiar and uncanny. As visual historiography, The Underground Railroad enacts an irreconcilable challenge to the writing of history and, furthermore, to the political and aesthetic capacities of televisual seriality. Jenkins’s conception of the series resonates as a fantastical and haunting restipulation of the idea of America—and a crucial reimagining of the rendering of blackness.
Barry Jenkins’s body of work to date demonstrates an exquisite devotion to the art of blackness as an aesthetic and cultural practice. Medicine for Melancholy (2008), Moonlight (2016), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), and now the television series The Underground Railroad (2021) together represent an acutely cinephilic attention to black visual and expressive culture. Speaking with Jenkins, who is always generative and passionate about his craft, was an opportunity to plot out an understanding of his process and his mission. The following conversation took place a week before the series release and documents a moment devoted to considering the depth and consequence of the series.
As visual historiography and an inventive adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s eponymous 2016 book, The Underground Railroad operates as a speculative epic deeply focalized around the history of slavery, the fugitivity of freedom, and the interiority and desires of the character of Cora (Thuso Mbedu). The series poses a stunningly exacting sense of the slave narrative coupled with an ambitious charting of antebellum nineteenth-century America, at once familiar and uncanny. The accretion of the series arc entails a remarkable cartography, reaching from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana and beyond, yet this mapping is guided not by mere longitude and latitude. Instead, it seethes as a persistently sharp and exquisite reckoning with the limits and erasures of American history.
In place of idle memorialization, The Underground Railroad enacts an irreconcilable challenge to the writing of history and, furthermore, to the political and aesthetic capacities of televisual seriality. Jenkins’s conception of the series resonates as a fantastical and haunting restipulation of the idea of America—and a crucial reimagining of the rendering of blackness.
I want to begin with your writing process. When did you, as the series showrunner, start to map out Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad, and how did you put together a writers’ room? Were there any issues with settling on the structure and form?
We did the two at once. What was really great about the project was that it had a really long gestation process. We began even before Moonlight premiered. That was when I first engaged Colson, and we kept hopscotching. We finished award season for Moonlight and then we did the writers’ room for The Underground Railroad [UR]. We shot If Beale Street Could Talk and were editing it and writing the scripts for UR. As we were releasing Beale Street, we were scouting and rewriting the episodes for UR. It was nice to have these waves where we could go in, excavate the novel, get something down, let it sit and settle, and then see what stuck.
It was in the writers’ room that we did most of the excavation. There we considered where we were going to hew very close to the text and where we could depart in organic ways. The time in the writers’ room was most instrumental with Jackie Hoyt, Allison Davis, Jihan Crowther, Nathan Parker, and Adrienne Rush. Everybody had things in the book that stuck with them. For example, that was how we ended up with the whole idea of Arnold Ridgeway [Joel Edgerton] taking Cora through Tennessee, and thinking about what he would be going home for is where this idea of Ridgeway Senior [Peter Mullan] really started to coalesce.
I was very struck by the Grace/Fanny Briggs [Mychal-Bella Bowman] character as an amendment and expansion of the source work. Furthermore, I had a lot of love for how that character is also a nod to Colson Whitehead’s earlier novel The Intuitionist . I really appreciated connections between The Intuitionist, with its devising of a racial unconscious of elevator inspection, and your own devising of The Underground Railroad, with its speculative conceits of the underground network and an African American history.
Some of those nods to The Intuitionist are very obvious and some a bit more hidden. Fanny Briggs was the most obvious. Then, in the “Chapter 8: Indiana Autumn” episode, some of the words that Caesar speaks are directly from James Fulton’s Theoretical Elevators in The Intuitionist. Also, there’s the elevator operator in “Chapter 2: South Carolina.” We didn’t punch in for a close-up, but his name tag says “James Fulton.”
I’ve read that you had initially wanted to adapt The Intuitionist. When did you pursue that project?
I’ve never said this publicly, but I’ll admit now that it was on my radar. That’s because, when Wesley Morris was at the Boston Globe, he wrote about the lack of adaptations of black literary works and he mentioned me, not in relation to adapting The Intuitionist, but somehow in relation to my Medicine for Melancholy.1 When he mentioned The Intuitionist, I wondered what the book was and so I read it. It was amazing, and I thought about attempting to adapt it. But, I was a nobody.
Did you have any guiding principles about staging your own measure of African American history? What was important for you to keep in mind with your rendering of slavery?
It was about understanding that if we’re re-creating these images, if we’re revisiting these events, then what new do we have to say about them? What are we revealing about them that hasn’t been revealed already in some other form? Secondly, I anticipated that these images would be very triggering and would be, in some ways, traumatic. I tried to make sure I was aware of this ethical compass … between revealing something new or unearthing or excavating something about the moment that wasn’t just about acute trauma. I always felt like I was making two scenes at once. There was the scene I was actually making. Then there was the scene I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making.
What are your thoughts on the possible reception of The Underground Railroad in this anticipatory moment prior to its release? There’s a lot of trepidation about representation, often reductively leaning heavily on the content of the series’ focus on slavery without any substantial consideration of the form. How do you feel about this climate of predetermination?
Well, it’s why we released the last trailer on social media [April 15, 2021]. Twitter really came for me. Yet, I thought they should come for me. I think everyone who creates anything, especially things in our image, has to be interrogated. That’s the responsibility that you accept in taking on those images and subject matter. Even though it didn’t feel good, I realized that it was just necessary.
It is crucial that people watch the series from start to finish, and not abandon it after the first episode. That first episode is admittedly a difficult one. But it’s a necessary one for the arc of the history and for the series narrative. If the series is driven by Cora’s escape to freedom, then the first episode brutally establishes what she’s running from. In particular, the POV of the man brutalized and set on fire near the white people gathered for an outdoor party was stunning. Especially when the audience is still within the POV of what remains of him, the smoking mass of him, that then proceeds to blink. There’s a relentlessly quotidian quality to the violence.
The first episode is hard, but it was a hard time. And we’re dealing with work that’s based in historical fiction, starting from a place that’s very fact based. You have to be very forthright, especially because of dealing with a protagonist who justifiably has given up all hope in everything, even in herself. It takes an extreme act to be a catalyst for her to be inspired and have the agency to flee this condition.
It’s been quite a consistently rich period these last few years for considering the art of blackness and television seriality. I’m thinking about UR as a part of a recent body of work that collectively poses distinctly challenging, experimental, and inventive senses of black seriality form. I’m thinking of work like Random Acts of Flyness [HBO, 2018], Watchmen [HBO, 2019], Lovecraft Country [HBO, 2020], I May Destroy You [HBO, 2020], The Good Lord Bird [Showtime, 2020], Small Axe [Amazon, 2020], Them [Amazon, 2021], and Exterminate All the Brutes [HBO, 2021]. With this current moment of proliferation in mind, what was it like to conceptualize The Underground Railroad for a television series format?
It’s so wonderful to see you run down that list. I think there’s a lot of heavy subject matter all at once. None of us are getting together in a group chat, going, “I know you hit hard, but I’m going to hit harder.” That’s just not what’s happening. It’s even more interesting that all these things have come to the surface now. It takes a while to generate this material, so the early gestation probably began in the previous presidency—forty-four, not forty-five.
I also think there’s been a failure to acknowledge what America actually is and once was—and, in some ways, continues to be. This is no more clearly exhibited than in the words “Make America Great Again.” I think all these projects have come about at the same time because all these creators have felt that it is time.
This series possesses such an elaborate pacing in its formal structure, much like an epic. What were some of the models, if any, that you consulted in terms of mapping it out?
It’s funny, but there weren’t any models. Knowing what I wanted to do, I couldn’t find any. Television is a serialized art form, and typically, in order to do this well, you must do it smartly. You amortize costs, you have one cast, and you have one set of locations that you repeatedly visit; the characters go on a journey that is evolving within the same space. For UR, we were legitimately a road show, with Cora manifesting across different states. We’ve got to evolve the world, and we’ve got to evolve our central character as well.
I spoke to Cary Fukunaga and Steven Soderbergh, both friends of mine who had done this before, and they both told me that it’s impossible and it was going to break me down. And it definitely did. As far as aesthetic references, James Laxton and I looked at the work of Kerry James Marshall, the fine artist, and the Australian photographer Bill Henson. I began to read quite a bit. If there was a model for what I felt we were attempting, it was in the work of Miss Toni Morrison.
Morrison’s work is always essential to keep in mind when considering form and the affective consequence of blackness and history. I’m particularly thinking here of the times you’ve spoken elsewhere about her Nobel Prize lecture, when she remarked, “Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.”2 Her thoughts of language echo the kind the work you did to conceptualize the series and the resonances of the American past (and not-yet-past). You brought up James Laxton. I’m also thinking about your continued collaboration with the composer Nicholas Britell and editor Joi McMillan. How important is it for you to work with people that you’ve worked with before?
It was super important. This was emotionally, creatively, and logistically the most difficult thing I’ve ever undertaken. I think going through this journey with people I love and trust was the only way I was able to fully navigate it. That was at every stage of the process. Joi in particular was extremely important. Our main character in this show is a Black woman, but Colson is a Black man and I am a Black man. It was important to have literally every frame pass through her fingertips, even the episodes she didn’t cut.
Having Joi’s perspective and allowing her perspective to supersede even my own, at certain points, was incredibly important. A director can’t do that with just anyone; but [you can] with someone you know and have known for twenty years. The same with James. There were a few moments in the making of the show where the emotion of what we were doing was so overwhelming that the craft part of me just had to turn off. I had to be only a human being for a moment. And it was really lovely to know that James was going through the same thing, but knew: “OK, this is a moment where I’ve got to step up and maintain until Barry can get himself back together, and then we’ll keep going down the road.”
Across the ten episodes, only one and a half take place on a plantation; yet, for whatever reason, the entirety of this thing was all at this emotional peak. You’d like to think that in 116 days, you’d assume there’s at least 20 days where we could hide. Nope, that’s not the story we’re telling.
Whether thinking about fires or locusts or rivers turning red with blood or the pandemic or insurrections, 2020 was a deeply troubling year. How did your sense of what you were doing change over the course of the year? I wonder particularly about that moment when you had to shut down the production, and then again when you went back?
We shut down on March 12, 2020, and we all got on planes and went home. We had filmed for 112 days at that point and had enough material to start cutting the show until it was safe to go back. Then of course, everything happened. Everything.
It was just natural to have this feeling of wanting to go back and do it all over again. Or, just go back and rewrite or tailor it to speak directly to all these contemporary things. All those things were swirling in my head, and I’m glad I was more or less handcuffed. Thankfully, we didn’t have that luxury. We realized as got into the editing process that we were already talking about so many of these things. There was nothing I could do but keep making the work I’d already begun.
There has been a great deal of reluctance (by some audiences as well as critics) about the depiction of slavery in film and media. This often comes across as the dictating of a refusal to accept or tolerate these depictions. People are insisting on what they won’t see and need to see in a tone that suggests that spectatorship is tacitly equivalent to being subjected to an experience and a reliving of violence. It sometimes comes across as a residual rebranding of black respectability politics. I worry about how the traces of positive and negative binaries inform this line of inquiry. The criticism is quick to label something a bad object while compelled by the fantasy that a good object even exists.
I should be interrogated. The show should be interrogated, because too often things have been created for us in our image that are very clearly not from us. I get that some of this idea of positive and negative images is about respectability. Yet something about it is just quite maddening, because there’s nothing that’s disrespectable about my ancestors. There was a post on Twitter where someone basically said, “I don’t want to see any more movies about slaves. I want to see positive images.” Well, what that says is that any image associated with my ancestors is inherently negative. I can’t accept that, because then we’re participating in our own erasure. We have to find a way to build images that contextualize our ancestors. We’re using this word enslaved all the time now—but that’s about what was done to our ancestors, not what they did.
One of the beautiful things about being on set was that, when we filmed in Georgia, episodes 1 and 10, the first and last, were filmed on an actual plantation. On most of these plantations, of course, the big house still exists. But the slave quarters have been erased, because people still get married in the big house, and they don’t want to be reminded of what the big house stood for, what the big house engaged in. So we rebuilt the slave quarters from scratch. When we were scouting, we were saying: “There’s been quite a few of these movies over the last decade. Where are their sets?” We realized that no one had the resources before to truly replicate what these places were like.
There were days whn you’d walk on set and you were standing in an actual slave quarter. There were background actors in actual dress and actually cutting cane and picking cotton. I said to the crew on day one, “I just want you to know there are going to be moments when you’re walking around here and it’s going to feel very real. That is intentional, as we built this to feel real. We’re here to honor our ancestors, but be careful, because at certain moments you might cross that uncanny valley and you forget where the line between you and them is demarcated.” And it was so important to remind folks of that, but in doing so, I would be walking around set and I would see: my ancestors were enslaved, but that was what was done to them. They were blacksmiths and midwives and herbalists and spiritualists. I began to see all these folks.
I actually almost started making a third film, because I always had to make the film in front of me and I had to make sure of the film I wasn’t making. The third one was our ancestors lost in the historical record. I would sometimes just stop the filming entirely and we would just train the camera on our background actors. And there’s this one-to-one gaze where they’re looking directly in the camera.3 But as much as I’m allowing myself and the audience to see them, I think there’s this thing that’s happening where it’s also allowing them to see us, who are the descendants, and now we’re here commanding language, re-creating, recontextualizing all they did.
The series possesses a quiet tonality that has long been a signature of your work. Yet, in this context of focusing on American history and slavery, it strikes me as having a very different effect. What ideas did you have in mind about the camera movement and score?
It came from this place of being a kid and hearing the words underground railroad and literally seeing—not even imagining, seeing—my ancestors building trains and tunnels that ran underground. I was four or five years old, and it was a thing that I truly believed. I said to Mark Friedberg, our production designer, very early in preproduction: “I want real trains, real tunnels, and real tracks. I don’t want to CGI anything.” I said to James [Laxton] that wherever possible, rather than cutting to a new shot or cutting to new information, let’s create a new shot and more information with the camera. Because the longer we can sustain an image, I think, the more truthful it will be. The longer I can look at my ancestors without inserting this break, or this block, or this cut between them and the audience, the more I think the audience will allow themselves to see them. And so it’s something that we tried to bake into the process. And with the score, there were certain moments where Nick [Nicholas Britell] and I realized it was better for us to repose than for us to be assertive with underscoring or trying to accentuate what was happening in front of us.
I didn’t want to make a show with a neorealist aesthetic, yet I did want to find a way to conjure some of the essence of what I think is achievable from a neorealist approach.
How did you settle on the music to close each episode? That music acts as affective summations, sonic punctuations that always mark a distinct spatiotemporal counterpoint to the 1800s era of the series. Those final songs produce a historical continuum of a now and a then.
That is one of the things that happened during the production break in March. It happened organically; so much of the show happened organically. Like the okra seeds: that only happened because the prop master—this guy in the art department who decides the vegetables or wine for every scene—one day showed me some dried okra and let the seeds drop on my desk. He picked one up and he held it to my eye, and said: “No matter how dry this gets, if you plant it, it will grow.” You’ve seen the show and what we did with that. So much of this production was just [shaped] organically from being receptive to what was happening, [like] when we shut down and a protest breaks out in the streets and it just seems like the whole damn country is on fire. Nick and I saw people taking music from Beale Street to score their speeches during the protest. And I thought, Man, that’s wild, this music inspired by this novel in 1974 is now becoming the perfect accompaniment to this very contemporary thing that is happening in 2020.
So I decided to have needle drops at the end of every episode to underscore what is being spoken. There were two places where it really manifested itself. One is where Ridgeway is talking so much shit. We let him talk so much shit and then I was thinking of Donald Glover’s “This Is America.” I was thinking of how beautiful it was to watch that music video and see him dancing with those kids. That was when we just started chasing it to figure it out. The only episode where we don’t use the needle drop is when Jasper is allowed to sing himself out. It just felt like we needed to honor and eulogize the character.
You once said, at the time of Moonlight’s release, that there was a freedom in not having to carry the torch, or at least not to have to carry it alone.4 How do you feel now in terms of the wide range of black film and media of the last five years? How do you feel now about that torch and not being alone anymore?
I feel great about it. On the morning when the embargo lifted on the show, which was a Tuesday morning, it was wonderful. I woke up and there was a text message from Ryan Coogler checking in. I woke up that morning with my stomach in knots, and then this very simple gesture from him reaffirmed that I’m not alone in this. We have each other’s backs.
I will say, with this one, though, I had to do it alone. I didn’t show it to anybody. This had to be on me and my collaborators. On this I have felt alone, but that was by choice and not by mandate.
Wesley Morris, “Black Authors’ Works Missing on the Big Screen,” Boston Globe, January 17, 2010, N9.
Toni Morrison, “The Nobel Lecture in Literature,” in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Vintage International, 2020), 106.
This footage was used for The Gaze, a short film comprising these shots of the foregrounded background actors and scored by Nicholas Britell. It was released online on May 8, 2021, the week before The Underground Railroad series was launched on Amazon; see https://vimeo.com/546795671.
See Michael Boyce Gillespie, “One Step Ahead: A Conversation with Barry Jenkins,” Film Quarterly 70, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 52–62.