Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad

The Daily — May 14, 2021
The hands of Thuso Mbedu in Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad (2021)

On Tuesday, Barry Jenkins posted The Gaze, a fifty-two-minute series of portraits of actors in full costume and character as they appear in the backgrounds of scenes throughout his new series, The Underground Railroad. In The Gaze, though, they stand front and center, often looking directly into the camera—at us. Jenkins writes that, at one point early in production of his ten-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel, “I looked across the set and realized I was looking at my ancestors, a group of people whose images have been largely lost to the historical record.”

Whitehead’s novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, reimagines the network of abolitionists, safe houses, and secret routes along which an estimated hundred thousand slaves escaped to freedom in the early to mid-nineteenth century as an actual railway system with subterranean train stations, locomotives, and uniformed porters and conductors. Cora, played in the series by South African actress Thuso Mbedu, is a slave growing up alone on a plantation in Georgia after her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), escaped. White bounty hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) never caught Mabel, so when Cora runs off with Caesar (Aaron Pierre), Ridgeway, accompanied by his young and devoted Black assistant, Homer (Chase W. Dillon), is absolutely determined to track her down.

The Gaze is inspired in part by a series of paintings by Kerry James Marshall, portraits of “ancestors for whom there is no visual record but for whom he has supplied a visual representation of their person,” writes Jenkins. This conscious “act of seeing” is central to the project of The Underground Railroad as well. “Despite people saying, ‘Do we need another movie about slavery, do we need another movie about trauma?’ these images actually aren’t as prevalent as I feel they should be,” Jenkins tells Devika Girish in Sight & Sound. “Though there are dense academic works about slavery, this subject isn’t given its due course in public schools—which is what I really care about. That is why we can have four years of the slogan ‘Make America Great Again,’ because there’s a blind spot about what America actually was.”

Whitehead was unfamiliar with Jenkins’s work when the filmmaker approached him after reading a galley of the novel in 2016. Moonlight hadn’t yet premiered at Telluride and was still months away from winning three Oscars, including best picture. Jenkins sent him a link, and as Whitehead tells Camonghne Felix in Vanity Fair, he was impressed with the way Jenkins “kept everyone’s essential humanity foregrounded even in the face of tragedy and trauma and brutality.” So Whitehead decided to interview him. “And, you know, I don’t know what to ask filmmakers—‘Are there any slavery movies that inspired you or that you look to for inspiration?’ He was like, ‘Slave movies? No, I was thinking [Paul Thomas] Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, you got it, you say two of my favorite movies in the last twenty years or so, take it.’”

Besides Anderson, Jenkins drops several other names in his conversation with Girish: David Cronenberg, Jordan Peele, Claire Denis, and Hitchcock. “But the one filmmaker whose influence seems embedded most deeply in Jenkins’s DNA is Wong Kar Wai,” writes Girish. “The Hong Kong master’s oozing romanticism, hallucinatory compositions, and longing-soaked close-ups are echoed and reworked across Jenkins’s filmography. The Underground Railroad is steeped in these flourishes, turning Whitehead’s grim caper into an unfailingly beautiful saga.” At 4Columns, filmmaker Blair McClendon observes that close-ups, “in a Jenkins film, are for looking and being looked at, where the screen starts to feel like a window instead of a two-way mirror.”

As Amazon releases all ten episodes at once today, you may find yourself tempted to binge them in two or three nights. “Don’t,” advises James Poniewozik in the New York Times. “The series isn’t just too unsettling; it’s too visually and emotionally rich.” Yes, he writes, “you will see atrocities. But you will also see humanity and resistance and love. You will see a stirring, full-feeling, technically and artistically and morally potent work, a visual tour de force worthy of Whitehead’s imaginative one.”

In Time, where we find Whitehead in conversation with Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) not only about adaptation but also about the burning relevance, intended or not, of both of their works to present traumas, Judy Berman flags the contributions to The Underground Railroad from some of Jenkins’s longtime collaborators. Cinematographer James Laxton “captures the almost-physical weight of midday sun beating down on a cotton field,” she writes. “Mark Friedberg, a production designer who worked on some of Wes Anderson’s and Todd Haynes’s most visually stunning projects, deploys color with purpose.” And composer Nicholas Britell “weaves elements native to each landscape, from hissing insects in Georgia to the locomotive’s metal-on-metal clank, into a score held together by muted piano passages.” Profiling Britell for the New York Times, Jamie Fisher suggests that his compositions here “are less a single score than ten intersecting, fully realized musical universes.”

In his outstanding interview with Jenkins for the Guardian, Tim Adams reminds him that he has said in the past that he’d always aimed to tell three stories. With Moonlight, he told the one about where he grew up. With If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), he made his James Baldwin adaptation. And now with The Underground Railroad, he’s done something, in Jenkins’s own words from the past, “related to the condition of American slavery.” Does he now have “a sense of an ending?” Adams wonders.

Without specifically referring to future projects based on the lives of boxer Claressa Shields and choreographer Alvin Ailey and another telling the story of The Lion King’s Mufasa, Jenkins says that he does feel that he’s “moving into a new phase . . . But you know, if I drop dead tomorrow, I think I will be okay. I always felt like I had to use the privilege, the luck of stumbling into my calling, to tell these three stories. If I never make anything else again, I will still feel like my journey was fulfilled.”

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