There is a shared chuckle when filmmaker Barry Jenkins tells me that as a child he believed, like most children, the Underground Railroad to be an actual railroad complete with trains at the ready to relocate Black folks to freedom.
There is a sweet innocence to this youthful assumption, one that weds the literal to the fantastic in a way that softly gestures to the radical capacity of imagination in envisioning what liberation might look like. This itself belies much of the success of U.S. author Colson Whitehead’s 2016 historical fiction novel, The Underground Railroad, which Jenkins has now adapted into a 10-part limited series of the same name.
Whitehead’s alternate history tells the story of Cora and Caesar, who make a bid for freedom from their enslavement on a 19th-century Georgia plantation. Much as it had been figured in our young minds, the Underground Railroad here is real – an enigmatic rail system patterned with a series of safe houses and travel routes. For a director like Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), who has long been itching to tell a story about his ancestors set during this period of history, the mythic potential of a magic realist narrative like Whitehead’s was mesmerizing.
Ahead of the series’ release on Amazon Prime Video May 14, Jenkins spoke to The Globe and Mail about the considered intentions and methodologies that guided the materialization of his almost uncontainable epic.
What is the draw of the kind of reimagined histories offered by artists like Whitehead for you? How do you navigate what freedom might look like in your process of adaptation?
We talk about Afro-Futurism in a way that is often very present-oriented – it’s something ahead of us, something that is to come. And yet, in thinking about these people, our ancestors, whose bodies in many ways were restricted, I think about their minds and their robust consciousness. So I thought, “Why can’t Afro-Futurism apply to people in the past? To my ancestors?” Viewing this story through this prism was really wonderful. To see this woman standing in the bottom of a dark cave holding a torch, she looks like superwoman and, in certain ways, she is.
I love the ways in which the series foregrounds Black ritual, whether it be spiritual, social or otherwise. I think that there is a magic to these movements, which is even more heightened by the fact that they were in the process of being disappeared.
I’m glad you said that because I don’t think the show is religious as much as it is spiritual. In the last episode of the series, there is a burial that was so special. We didn’t choreograph it at all and it was so beautiful I broke down crying. Knowing that these same rituals had taken place on the same ground on which we were standing, where these people had literally risked their lives in order to give their kin a proper burial. I was absolutely moved. If there’s anything that this show is about for me it’s re-contextualizing the sacrifices of our ancestors.
While we were making the show Kanye West went on TMZ and he said slavery was “a choice.” And I got so pissed off, so pissed off. It made me so angry. And once I got through that anger I thought, okay, let me semantically unpack this, and where I arrived at with that was, you know what, he clearly doesn’t understand what he is saying but, in a certain light, in a certain way – that I don’t think he’s aware of – he’s partly right.
In this hell, we built everything. We built everything in this country. This show wasn’t actually big enough to truly build out exactly how systematic and militaristic this institution was. And, within that, there were choices made in order to protect our children. Because there were children everywhere. I don’t need to explain to you why this was. Our ancestors endured to protect us. That sacrifice was made so that Kanye West could walk into TMZ and say slavery was a choice; so that you and I can sit here and have this conversation. They chose me and they chose you.
That recontextualization, especially what it might look like visually, is something I thought about a lot while watching the series. Portraiture is a strong current within your work as a whole and bolstered even more so here by the historical context of this story. It feels like a lived portraiture as if you’ve enlivened these present-day, fictional portraits with a living history that we haven’t been given access to at this level of viewership. There is a palpable sense of internal life to your approach, of wanting to reclaim the subjectivities that our ancestors were often denied in the process of archiving and documenting their lives. I see a lot of your interest in Gordon Parks continuing here in that sense.
Mr. Parks was definitely on our mood board. The whole colour aesthetic of our second episode is a riff on Parks’ photography for Life magazine in the 1950s. That idea of portraiture is very interesting and I think that you’re right. We tried to put that into service in a way that had meaning here. I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years and I’m always asked about the white gaze, I’m never asked about the Black gaze. One of my biggest inspirations for the show was the work of [American artist] Kerry James Marshall, which was difficult because Mr. Marshall has made it very clear that he refuses to depict Black people in states of trauma in his work and, yet, there was no way for me to go through this journey without having certain depictions of trauma. And still, he was the reference. His portraits made their way into the show. In [formerly enslaved American poet] Phillis Wheatley’s monograph there is a portrait of her that was created by a Black artist who we have no record of. Marshall created a portrait of that portraitist; here is a man we have no actual record of who Marshall has reclaimed. That idea was so invigorating to me.
As we were making the show this happened organically. Our background actors were amazing. They were historians in their own right, showing how to work the cotton, how to work the sugar mill, how to cut the cane. They were so activated that we were able to do all of these wide shots and have the people in the background of the frame be of just as much import as the people more central within the frame.
We made Moonlight with a single camera but here, being such a big show, we used two, sometimes three cameras. Whenever myself and [cinematographer] James [Laxton] felt that we were in such a groove that we could make the shot with a single camera we would break off one of those other cameras and I would run between sets asking folks, “I’m going to place you in front of the camera, just show me yourself.” I wanted there to be nothing to be in between them and the audience. Anytime I felt that there was a mood or spiritual connection on set I would grab a camera and do these portraits. We ended up having five hours of this footage – there is a whole other half of a series that is just this gaze. The line between ourselves and our ancestors, these actors and our ancestors, is so direct and this gaze, this portraiture, for me, became the most immediate way to tell this story.
What are your thoughts on the affective impact of showing Black trauma on screen, especially in relation to this idea of realistic depictions that seek to honour the lived reality of our ancestors? I’m thinking specifically of the contradictory nature of attempting to communicate the indescribable or un-representable nature of enslavement within the limits of what we might loosely call representational cinema. Is there a way that storytelling for television lends itself to navigating this?
I very much looked to Toni Morrison in trying to find my moral compass and in understanding what it was I was doing in the show and where the line was. In her  Nobel lecture she describes the attempt to render a depiction of what enslavement would have been like as ineffable and I really felt that. Making this for television was very intentional. Sitting in a movie theatre is a very captive experience and what I wanted for folks was the ability to be in control of the viewing experience. To be able to watch it as they wish, to turn it off as they wish, to watch it alone or to watch it with someone who is going to support you. Giving agency back to our ancestors was important to me, especially after having done my research and listened to the testimonies. For me, creating art that speaks to the reality of this lived experience is a form of honouring the ancestors. There were times on set when I wanted to get down on my knees and touch the soil as a way of offering myself to these people because they had offered so much in order for me to have the ability to use language to speak to their experience.
There is an ethical dilemma within that though. I used myself as a compass, I used my family as a compass, I used the therapist we had on set as a compass. In the first episode there is not a single moment where we show, and I hate to even use this term but, a whip contacting human flesh. I was very adamant about that. The first time we see whipping happen – and there are only three of these moments within the entire series – we are [in a wide shot]. And that was intentional. That was enough. There was no need to go any closer than that. I tried to [conceptually] go one step further than that in [visually] moving from the acute trauma of the person being [physically harmed] to the people who were made to bear witness. To sit with them. That level of excavation of my own motivation and methods was how I was able to find the line between what was worth showing and what was not. There were so many worse things that happened to our ancestors than what I chose to depict in this show.
The Underground Railroad premieres May 14 on Amazon Prime Video
Special to The Globe and Mail
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