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Barry Jenkins Knew Black Pain Had To Be Central To 'The Underground Railroad'

A Black woman looks toward the camera, cotton in hand, in front of a painting of a field of cotton, another Black woman, and buildings far in the background.
Thuso Mbedu, who plays the runaway slave Cora, in Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad.”
(Kyle Kaplan
Amazon Studios )
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When Colson Whitehead sat down to write “The Underground Railroad,” the 2016 novel about two escaped slaves that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, he knew the literary journey wouldn't be easy.

“It’s daunting to put your characters through the kind of brutality that telling a truthful story about the topic requires,” he said at the time.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins, who has adapted Whitehead’s book into a 10-part Amazon series that premieres on Friday, May 14, faced an equally difficult cinematic task: he not only had to convert the horrors that Whitehead imagined in his words into visual images for the screen, but also ask his actors to perform them.

“I was very clear with the cast and the crew that unpacking these things wasn't more important to me than their sanity and their mental well-being,” Jenkins, director of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” said in an interview at his Silver Lake home. “That’s why we had a therapist-slash-guidance counselor on set at all times.”

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The audience will be challenged as well, as the first episode contains two assaults on slaves, both brutal and one unspeakably horrific. They are fleetingly described by Whitehead in his book in a few sentences; Jenkins magnifies the scenes exponentially.

“I remember growing up and seeing images from the Jim Crow South, the Jim Crow era, with the aftermath of lynchings. But there was something about that that felt incomplete, because we're never forced to bear witness to the the actual degradation of these moments."
— Barry Jenkins

That represents Jenkins' opportunity and, he feels, his obligation: to remind viewers, ever not so gently, of the foundations on which this nation was built and the legacy of systemic racism that persists.

“I remember growing up and seeing images from the Jim Crow South, the Jim Crow era, with the aftermath of lynchings,” Jenkins said. “But there was something about that that felt incomplete, because we're never forced to bear witness to the the actual degradation of these moments. And when I say degradation, I mean both the person being aggrieved, but also the dehumanizing — the absolute depravity of the people committing these atrocities.”

Yet as grim as the suffering in “The Underground Railroad” definitely is, the runaway slaves of both the book and the movie, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), are buoyed by indomitable resilience and hope. The railroad in the story is not a secret path to freedom fashioned by abolitionists. Instead, it’s a physical train — a subterranean rail network leading from enslavement to freedom.

“The show could be 10 episodes of a woman trying to vanquish the institution of American slavery, but that’s not it,” Jenkins said. “It’s about Cora trying to reconcile the sense of abandonment from her mother. Yes, we are dealing with the condition of American slavery, but that's not everything the show is about. It's about a character. The enslaved had mothers and daughters, and they had familial fractures, and they had heartache.”

As Jenkins traveled back in history to make “The Underground Railroad,” which was filmed in Georgia, he encountered a tangible effort to rewrite the past.

“We found many plantation houses. And the houses are allowed to persist, and people get married in them. But the slave quarters that were adjacent to these places, those have been allowed to waste away,” Jenkins said. “So we built our slave quarters from scratch. We built everything. It was a massive undertaking, but I wanted it to be real. I wanted to stand in these spaces.”

Late in the novel, Whitehead gives this speech to a character named Lander, who becomes a composite character in Jenkins’ adaptation. Yet his words, verbatim, remain in the series, and could not resonate any louder than they do today:

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes — believes with all its heart — that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”