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Barry Jenkins
Erik Carter/Deadline

How Barry Jenkins Sought To Recontextualize The Genocide Of Slavery With The Power Of Parable In ‘The Underground Railroad’

Barry Jenkins turns to television for his latest project, a 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, Starring Thuso Mbedu, which hit Amazon Prime Video last week. It’s his most ambitious project yet, set on a grander canvas and with much greater emotional stakes than anything he’s tackled before. But, as he explains to Joe Utichi—with a few mild spoilers at the start—it’s no less deeply personal, in his quest to recontextualize the struggle of his ancestors.

Barry Jenkins is just about ready to switch his phone off. It’s a few days before the reviews for The Underground Railroad hit, and after an epic shoot for the miniseries, and the long road to bring it to screen, he is adjusting to the idea of letting his new show take on a life of its own.

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But if there’s any anxiety about how those reviews will turn out, it’s misplaced. Indeed, when the embargo finally lifts, the praise is universal. Jenkins’ series adapts Colson Whitehead’s novel, which imagines a literal railway line under the earth to tell its tale of Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and her struggle through the Southern United States to secure her freedom from slavery. And from that heightened premise comes a deep examination of the plight of people forced to run this particular gauntlet in their pursuit of liberty. Cora is chased at every step by a slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), and the far-reaching horrors of slavery are laid bare at every stop on her journey.

Barry Jenkins is acutely aware of the potency of the images he presents in The Underground Railroad. In fact, he says, it’s part of why he chose the medium of television to share them. But while the show is unsparing in detailing the industrial scale of an atrocity that has so rarely been given its due examination in cinema and television, it is also, through the spirit of Cora, a story of hope, resilience, and love.

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DEADLINE: This story is heartbreaking, both in Colson Whitehead’s novel, and now in this show, and so much is wrapped up in Cora, played by Thuso Mbedu. It’s hard to articulate, so soon after seeing it, what it is precisely that makes following her so enveloping.

BARRY JENKINS: I apologize, but I’m very happy to have broken your heart with the show [laughs]. It’s interesting what you’re talking about, because I’ve been thinking about it as well. I also don’t know how to articulate some of these things, but I think making the show, and especially making it with all these people, is sort of how I find the language.

If it wasn’t for Thuso—if someone else had been the main character—I think what the show was saying would probably be a bit different. I was just jumping through it myself this past weekend. It had been so much damn work that I had to get away from it for a little bit. Watching it now, it’s really amazing, some of the things she communicates through that character. And they’re not intellectual statements, or declarations, questions or reasonings. It’s very emotional and maybe almost spiritual.

I’m trying to not be so softheaded when I talk about the show, but it really does feel like it has become something else, just outside and beyond me, which I think makes sense since so many people had to come together to create it.

DEADLINE: Some of these collaborators go all the way back to your time at Florida State University—producer Adele Romanski, DP James Laxton—and you’ve gathered more since, through the three movies you made before this.

JENKINS: It’s nice, the little family that we’ve built. It’s true that we’ve been grabbing people every step of the way from Medicine for Melancholy to Moonlight to If Beale Street Could Talk, and now this. And in a way, I think it’s all been kind of building to this show. The Underground Railroad is by far the biggest thing any of us has ever done. And I mean emotionally as well as literally, even though it’s still quite intimate in spots.

DEADLINE: It’s hard to find the language to express this, but what the show grapples with to great effect is the price Cora is forced to pay in her quest for freedom. Not just the injustice of the cost, but whether that price was worth the struggle.

JENKINS: I like this idea of language. I’ve been reading Toni Morrison’s Nobel speech, and it’s all about language. There’s a moment in the show in which Cora plants some seeds. And so, I want to say, does she bury the seeds or does she plant them for the next person that comes through the tunnel behind her, so that when they reach the hilltop, there’d be sustenance there?

What I’m the proudest about with the show is that I wanted us to allow ourselves the strength to present images in that way and not editorialize them. Yes, it could be glass-half-full or glass-half-empty. Is she leaving the seeds behind, or is she leaving them for the future? That way, it breaks the cycle.

DEADLINE: We see that especially in the character of Homer, played by Chase Dillon. He’s this little Black boy who seems to be totally in lockstep to his slave-catching master. He’s an innocent, and he isn’t wholly corrupted, yet he also isn’t grasping for his own redemption. It’s incredibly complex.

JENKINS: Yeah, and to be honest I can’t find the words to articulate what I want to say about Homer myself [laughs]. But see, this is the power of adaptation, because I would never have created a character like him, and yet I also didn’t want to run away from him. I felt it was important to take on the task and to try to escalate the enigma that is Homer. In working through it with Chase, and by following the breadcrumbs that Colson left us, I think we found a way to take the character to a place where, at the very least, we can understand how he functions in Ridgeway’s life and vision.

To me, it wasn’t a father/son dynamic. It was this idea of indoctrination and grooming. And I think Chase did a great job of both being present—having the character beholden to himself—but also being incredibly indoctrinated. He’s a very strange character.

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DEADLINE: The journey that Cora goes on is heightened—by this idea of an actual, physical railroad under the ground, for example—but in placing her in so many different situations, the fundamental macro truth of slavery in this era is laid bare. It got me thinking about how infrequently art has grappled with it. Without wanting to compare the two, or diminish either atrocity in any way, I thought about how the macro cost of the Holocaust, for example, had been much more frequently examined.

JENKINS: When you talk about the notion on this show that there are images and a text, and then there’s a subtext, what I liked about having the opportunity to tell the story over 10 hours was that you could explore metaphor and then the metaphor beneath the metaphor. There are all these mirrors in the show, which I think allow you to see whatever the emotional or social or political issue or metaphor is that’s in front of you, and you can see it from many different angles.

I want to be careful as well, because I think every genocide should be viewed through its own lens and given its own space and time for proper excavation, but I will agree that the treatment of that particular genocide in arts and letters has been robust; profoundly robust. They were making films about the Holocaust as the Holocaust was still happening, and by the time West Germany had active reparations in 1952, there had already been 15 feature films about the Holocaust.

And so, you’re absolutely right, and I think perhaps it’s because that atrocity was so front and center, and it was also a different time period. There were the tools that we use to create this art, which weren’t in existence at the time of this atrocity, so there was almost no way to try to recontextualize what that event was. I was thinking just this morning about this idea of the efficacy of telling this history—of retelling it—of the need, or the lack of a need, for more of these images. And I do think it’s about recontextualizing how we view this time in American history and, for me, recontextualizing how we view my ancestors.

A case in point for that is Thanksgiving. If that holiday is told from a Native American perspective, it’s going to be a very different holiday than the one that I grew up having forced upon me. That’s a very small example, but I think it is an example that shows the justification or the need to keep telling stories like this.

I hope, by the way, that someday somebody does make a film that’s titled Thanksgiving, and that it tells the real truth of the genocide of the Native Americans. But I’m going off topic…

DEADLINE: Well, I think what’s interesting, and frankly frightening, is to continue to recognize the industrial scale on which people constructed an apparatus for the infliction of abject brutality upon others.

JENKINS: When we talk about the grand scale of an atrocity—a very organized, systemic scale—I think we now have some understanding of the Holocaust through that prism. I watched a documentary called Exterminate All the Brutes, and one of the men who escaped one of the camps, he had a very visual mind, and for the trials, he redrew the architectural plans of what all these facilities were. It was mind-blowing to see the architectural detail that went into building vessels of systemic destruction.

We don’t have that kind of imagery, or language, or understanding—and we certainly aren’t taught it—of slavery. Because it was also a very systemic, militaristic operation. And even this show doesn’t scratch the surface, because for all of our 10 episodes, only one-and-a-half of them take place on the plantation. And then, only half of them take place south of the Mason-Dixon line. Because of that, we’re not even addressing, as you said, the industrial scale of slavery.

I do think these genocides don’t just happen. They are systematically enacted, and they are organized. But I don’t think we, as Americans, have properly conceptualized this system of the conditions of American slavery through these same terms and prisms.

DEADLINE: A couple years ago, Spike Lee told me that, when he was at NYU Film School in the early ’80s, he was shown The Birth of a Nation with no context for the politics of D.W. Griffiths’ movie. That blight looms large in the history of this medium.

JENKINS: So was I. I think the only context we were given for it was that it was outdated and arcane, but this is where the medium comes from.

And it’s interesting, because the creation of those images, that’s not happenstance. It’s part of an adjudication of responsibility. We talk about the Holocaust as being systemic, I think because there’s so much evidence of systemic practice, and of course, there were reparations. Of course there were. And if we can prove that this government systematically disenfranchised Black folks—that it was organized and endorsed—then you can adjudicate responsibility to recompense those people or their descendants. I’m not saying I’m creating art working toward that effect, but I do think if the art is very truthful in speaking to the condition, then, of course, it’s going to serve as one more piece of evidence in that ordeal, or in that striving towards at least a very frank and honest acknowledgment.

DEADLINE: You mention evidence of systemic disenfranchisement with regard to the Holocaust, but it’s not like there’s a complete vacuum of evidence when it comes to slavery.

JENKINS: It’s interesting. A lot of things take time. It takes time and it takes foundation building. I don’t think this show could exist before now—and I’m not even talking about the marketplace or the financing of this and that. I don’t know that I would mentally or intellectually be capable of creating it without the works that have come before.

And so, I do think it has taken time for foundation building. It’s impossible to tell the story properly without a certain sense of scale. And I think that there are the images that have come before that had to have existed. The work I’ve done before has had to exist, and the work that my peers have done before had to have existed.

I think we’re on track; we’re on course. I do think, too, it’s not that there’s a lot of these images, but in the last four, five, or six years, we’ve had this show, there’s Underground, which Misha Green made, there was 12 Years a Slave, and even Watchmen, tangentially, which was related to this.

I do think it’s interesting that a lot of those things, the seeds were planted in the eight years that a Black man was in the White House. I don’t know if it was because we all sensed that things that were normally beneath the surface were now above the surface and very apparent… And the resistance that man faced in trying to change, or at least course correct, the system, maybe encouraged us to go, “No, you know what, we have to tell more truth. Not ride off into the sunset and think everything is solved now.” We had to actually speak even louder towards the truth.

I don’t know. It’s not like we’re all sitting in a room together, getting organized and going, “This year you’ll have this show, and then next year I’ll have that show.” But I do think it’s interesting to pop out a wide, 30,000 feet view and kind of observe. You’d assume that maybe we were all working on these utopian documents that were begun during this utopic representation in the White House. But no, I think the opposite is true.

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DEADLINE: It makes you wonder whether true progress can last if it isn’t challenged, say by the four years that followed the Obama era. Without wanting to be bleak about it, perhaps progress can only be permanent once it’s been tested. And once you have that seat at the table, being told to give it up is un-hearable.

JENKINS: It is un-hearable. And also, too, one of the things that became very clear over the last four years is the power of storytelling. Because so much of the power that was wielded in the last four years of the last administration, it was all about stories. If you speak it into existence—if you literally just speak it—you convince people to believe it, and it then becomes fact. We have fake news and we had actual facts. And both those things were controlled by this person who legislated from story. I think it was a perfect encapsulation of the inflated power of stories in present day America, especially in visual stories.

We’re just watching much more than we’re reading these days, unless you consider the things we’re reading on social media, which was battleground number one for the man in charge. And so, I do think because of that, it’s not that it has caused a doubling down, but maybe there are avenues of story, that in the past some of us would have been uncomfortable pursuing, that we now realize we must pursue.

DEADLINE: The power of parable was present at the birth of storytelling. I think it’s something you seize on in this show; how you can present an artificial construct that can nevertheless get to a deeper truth than even fact could allow. And I wonder whether you think we’re becoming more or less adept at grappling with questions of accuracy in storytelling. The past four years would suggest: not really.

JENKINS: I was thinking about this the other day, because I was talking to a friend from the Bay Area, where I used to live. He works in Silicon Valley at one of the big tech companies, and I was thinking about whether those cats understood what was going to happen. People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, when they were young cats creating the architecture that basically runs our lives now, if they assumed, “This is going to democratize access to information, so now if you’re willing, you can investigate and understand everything. It’s going to solve any problem that persists because of ignorance.” Because that’s not what’s happened, and it’s not what’s happening. Instead, it has allowed us to double down on the bits and pieces of truth or not truth that we’re prepared to accept, and to disregard anything that contradicts. It has created an information partisanship to a certain degree. And so, where does parable enter into that? I have no idea.

Are we becoming more adept in how we understand parable, and in that way is parable gaining power? I don’t think so. But I think we have to keep creating in this way, because some of the most energizing and powerful congregations of people happened around parables. I’m talking about organized religion. And I’m not saying this work of art, or these works of art, can function in the same way, or that they should aspire to have the same effect on people. But if there’s a reason parable seems to be more prominent in the way it affects people’s lives, I’d say it’s because of that.

Colson says about the show that it’s not a fact-based adaptation of the book, but rather a truth-based adaptation. Not every plot point in the book is in the show, but the essence of the book is definitely in the show. And when we go out and create art, I think we are kind of functioning in a similar way. Can we speak truth? Because there are science fiction stories that contain more truth than some documentaries. They were approached in a way that was very honest and clear-eyed and very responsible about the information they’re relaying. Same with horror movies. Many great genre works.

I do think this preoccupation with the truth is so vital right now. If you pair that with a very rich excavation of the possibilities of parable, then you can create something that actually moves people, and that might even change perceptions. Or, in the case of this show, the most important goal for me was to recontextualize how we view our ancestors and our relationship to this history.

DEADLINE: That recontextualization, it’s almost hard to discuss it so shortly after seeing the show, because it’s so big. Really, I want to be having this conversation with you a year from now, when it’s had time to sink in.

JENKINS: Yes! That would be cool. Because man, after four and-a-half years, all I want to do is let it out into the world. And make no mistake, I realize I have to contextualize my motives for making the show and exploring this world, because the images are so incendiary. I get it, and I thank you for having this conversation with me and allowing me to contextualize these images. But you’re right, I’d much rather let it out, and then a year from now, after the thing can live and breathe and have some space, let’s talk about it then. Conversations I have about Moonlight now are so interesting because that movie has been allowed the space to settle and grow, expand and contract. Now, when I have a conversation about that movie, I’m like, “Oh shit, I wish I could have thought about it that way in the moment.”

DEADLINE: So, let’s change tack then and talk about process. Because I’m really intrigued to ask how you found the writers’ room experience on this show. You’d been in a writers’ room before, but what did it offer you on your own project to open that part of the process up?

JENKINS: What I loved about the writers’ room on this show was that, right now, I’m all about interrogation. I think ideas should be interrogated. I think images should be interrogated. This book sitting on our desk, that had won the Pulitzer, it was so great for us to feel empowered to interrogate it. I didn’t want to fill the room with a bunch of people who I felt thought exactly like me, or a bunch of people who I thought made things exactly like me. We put together a really great crew, including two people who had never been in a writer’s room, and three people who had never written a script for a show.

It was really awesome to go through it and see where there were things that, in the book, I thought wouldn’t work as well in this medium, or things in the periphery of the book that either myself or someone else in the room realized would work extremely well in this medium. I think it was the earliest stage of us understanding that this wouldn’t be a fact-based adaptation but a truth-based one. Our Beale Street adaptation is much more fact-based by comparison. And figuring out that line was really great.

Some of the best ideas in the show, as far as the departures from the book, were absolutely not mine. There’s a young woman named Allison Davis, who was a friend of mine I knew in the Bay Area. It was her first time in a writers’ room, and she’s gone on now and done something like four other writers’ rooms since we finished and had multiple shows on the air. And all the stuff in Tennessee, we were just sitting there one day, and she was riffing, and I was like, “Holy shit, that’s a brilliant idea, let’s do it.” It was great.

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DEADLINE: You have an episode that runs 20 minutes, and another that runs an hour and 20 minutes. You let the story dictate. Now, I think the streaming era has allowed for much more looseness of form, but it’s rare to see a creator lean into that to such an extreme degree. Was that a conversation?

JENKINS: It was a conversation because just like you said, we allowed the show to dictate where the runtime was going to land for each episode, at different stages of the process. The Tennessee episode was filmed as a single episode and then, as we got into the edit, we realized that the character of Jasper was so powerful, and the pace of storytelling that James and I slipped into on that shoot in particular was such that this guy could hold a whole episode. So, we go, “Do we make one 90-minute episode, or two episodes of 50 or 55 minutes?” And I decided, “Yeah, this is the story of Jasper, and then we’ll come back to the story of Ridgeway and Cora.” It was an organic process, and it was a conversation.

I would like to say that I intentionally went to Amazon and said, “This is how long each episode is going to run,” but it didn’t work like that. That said, I think what you’re speaking to is true, which is that the medium has evolved to this place where a network doesn’t need to impose a format on the show to dictate its shape, and now the characters and the story can dictate. It was freeing at certain times, because, for example, I can imagine that attaching the story of Fanny Briggs to another episode would have been a disservice to the power and the wonder of discovery of having that be self-contained.

Actually, you’ve reminded me of something. A little piece of history I forget, which is that we tried to set this up initially in 2016, and there were multiple places that were just not interested in doing a limited series, even. It just wasn’t a thing. Now, four years on, there are so many limited series, and I think it’s where some of the most interesting work is being done. I mean, even something like The Crown, which is technically not a limited series, feels like the next iteration of one; a limited series of multiple seasons, rather than a traditional series.

DEADLINE: Delineations like that feel like they’re evaporating faster than we even know how to embrace that freedom. Within the form and between the mediums. Small Axe, this year, is a series of movies.

JENKINS: Small Axe is such a great example. The organizing principle for that series, to me, is just this idea of truthfulness, taking a truthful approach to representing and honoring his ancestors. It’s such a simple, refined and gorgeous way to approach the creation of anything. But the idea that this is a frame within which these very disparate plots and stories can be told, they’re united through truth and perspective, and they are films, absolutely.

How do you compare all these different approaches? The shows are united, in the sense that their creators have very specific goals and idiosyncratic approaches, and I think they’re taking truth-based approaches to their art. But otherwise, how do you define them? And really, I don’t know that it matters. I think what’s really wonderful is how streaming has opened a whole new portal up. I probably couldn’t have made this show in this way five years ago. 10 years ago, I absolutely couldn’t have. It’s a really beautiful time to be creative.

DEADLINE: And I’m probably right in guessing that you can express this while still being a passionate advocate for the big screen experience. That these two ideas—cinema and the streaming world—don’t need to be in competition with one another.

JENKINS: Yeah, but I get it. The audience’s skepticism, cinema lovers’ skepticism, I absolutely get it. It’s why I do my best never to reply to people on social media who respond to any of things I’m doing with negative energy. Because I know that their response is about much more than me. It’s about all these things we hold sacred, and it’s about wanting to protect them.

I think the distinction between cinema and television, at the very least as an exhibition medium, is really, really important. I talk about this show, and there are images that I so wish could be projected onto the largest screen imaginable. And yet, I also understood that because of the intrinsic power of some of these images it would be irresponsible of me, especially knowing the duration of the show, to create an extremely captive experience. When you walk into a movie, you surrender yourself. You gotta turn your phone off and all those things. But I think it’s important, as far as this show is concerned, to empower the viewer. If there are certain things that you’re uncomfortable with, or if you want to watch it and talk about it with someone who makes you feel comfortable, that power is in your hands.

Now, the sacrifice for that is, these images I know can withstand projection on a large screen, they’re not getting that. But I have the freedom and the privilege to negotiate that space and to decide, OK, this piece of art I’m creating, this is where it needs to live.

DEADLINE: I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence as a Deadline reporter if I didn’t ask you about an upcoming project that has me intrigued. You signed on to direct a prequel to the CG-animated Lion King movie, and people scratched their heads. It’s so unlike anything that you’ve made before. What was the draw for you?

JENKINS: Part of the draw was the script, which completely took me by surprise. Even when it was sent to me, I wasn’t sure exactly what it would be until I’d opened it. I grew up watching the first animated film. I had two nephews that I used to babysit all the time, and we watched that damn movie at least 500 times, over the course of about 18 months, on VHS. So, I had a relationship with it, and I was curious. When things come to me with a certain language, I’ll read the first 30 pages. I sat down at about 11:30 at night to read the first 30 pages in bed. And two hours later, I had finished the whole script and I thought, Oh, shit, this is actually pretty good.

Two things happened. One was, I asked myself, why did I say it was actually pretty good? Why am I already placing limitations on my connection to this material, or my appropriateness for it? OK, cool. I’ve got to destroy that part of my brain because it has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with what’s outside me. And then, two, as a visual storyteller, I’m obsessed with this whole new aspect to the medium with this CG imagery.

I stress-tested it. I sent it to my closest collaborators, and I said, “Am I crazy?” James [Laxton] was like, “No, you’re not crazy, this is fucking awesome.” He goes, “Look, if you plan to only make these films for the next 20 years, I want no part of it. But if we can go do this, and then get back to doing the shit that we normally do, that sounds awesome.”

So, I went back to Disney and we had some talks and I told them—just like I said when we started The Underground Railroad—“There’s going to be big action sequences. Nobody is going to come in and direct these action sequences. It’s got to be done in the same aesthetic as the rest of the show.” And they said, “Of course.” So, I said, “Disney, there might be lions staring directly into the camera… are you OK with that?” They said yes [laughs]. I swear, that’s a true story. So, that was pretty cool.

AwardsLine - The Underground Railroad
Read Deadline’s debut Emmy issue for 2021, featuring The Underground Railroad on the cover, here.

And then there was one other aspect of it too, and this wasn’t the driver, but there was a thought in my mind. I remember when Ava [DuVernay] did A Wrinkle in Time, that was a really big deal. Now, so many women, and so many women of color, are directing films at that scale. There’s been like five movies made in this style that these Lion King movies are made. But, after we’re done, no one is going to be able to say, “I don’t know if the director of the $1.5 million urban film can go direct…” No. You can’t say that anymore. Again, that wasn’t the driver, but it’s definitely a part of it.

So, yeah, we’re going down the road, and I’m excited, man. We’re doing some really cool shit. I mean, you’ve seen this show. Imagine that same aesthetic applied to virtual lions, and there you have it.

And you know what, those people scratching their heads? There were others saying, “Oh, so this guy goes from winning an Oscar to making television? What the hell is up with that?” I will say this: it’s lonely out there, man. Maybe one day I will conform to expectations and just start directing all the shit that people want me to direct. But, for right now, that’s just not the way. It’s not the way.

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