In African American history the phrase “Underground Railroad” is a metaphor that refers to a secret network of routes and safe houses that would help enslaved people escape to freedom. But in Barry Jenkins’ dazzlingly ambitious Amazon Prime Video serie, an adaptation of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, it is literal: there really is a fully functioning railroad beneath the Southern soil.
Taking place in an alternate timeline, Jenkins’s show stars Thuso Mbedu as Cora Randall, a young girl making a desperate bid for freedom in the Antebellum South, with a relentless and sadistic slave-catcher—Joel Edgerton’s Ridgway—chasing hard on her heels.
Speaking on a panel for the series at Deadline’s Contenders Television awards-season event, Moonlight Oscar-winner Jenkins revealed he’d been interested in working with Whitehead since the book was first published in 1999. “I’ve been a fan of Colson’s since his first novel, The Intuitionist,” Jenkins said, “and so I’d always kept tabs on him. And when I heard he had written a book about the Underground Railroad. I assumed that there was something about the concept that was going to be unexpected. When I was a kid and I first heard the words ‘Underground Railroad,’ I imagined Black people and trains underground, and so when it was confirmed that that was the conceit of Colson’s novel, I was like, ‘I’ve got to get hold of it.’
“I actually went and bought it on Amazon thinking, ‘Oh, they’ll ship it to me the day it launches,’ and then my agent was like, ‘No, you’re repped by this agency for a reason, we’ll get you the book.’ And so, I got the book and I read it and I knew right away that it was something I wanted to work on.”
Jenkins’ interest in the book even predated Moonlight’s premiere at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival. “One of the really beautiful things about this project,” he recalled, “was that it was a really long gestation process. We optioned the book, and we got the rights to it right after everything with the Oscars and Moonlight ended. We did the writer’s room, and then we went and made If Beale Street Could Talk. Then, as we were editing Beale Street, we started writing the scripts, and after Beale Street was released, we went into pre-production on Railroad. So, there was a long process of trying to understand what the adaptation was going to be, and how our vision for it would coalesce. It was this really beautiful fluid process of kind of getting further and further away from the book and really understanding what the television series would be.”
Although a newcomer to the U.S. industry, South African actress Mbedu was experienced enough in her homeland to realize that the role of Cora would require a lot of thought and exploration. “It was definitely, definitely intimidating to take Cora on,” she said, “because I already believed that she had to be served in the best possible way and as authentically as possible, without putting on a performance but by being true to her 100%. I had doubts, but I was in a space where, having spoken to Barry and having worked with him in the test shoot, I knew that I would be in safe hands. But I would be stretched, and I would be challenged. I’d have to step out of my comfort zone. …
“Cora’s story is an important story not just for Cora, not just for Mr. Whitehead, but for Black people globally. Not just in America, it’s a story that resonates with the Black body all over the world.”
Check out the conversation in the video above.
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