A new Barry Jenkins project is an event in cinema, and now the auteur behind the Academy Award-winning Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk is bringing his talent for dramatic storytelling to the small screen.
Jenkins has carved out a position as one of Hollywood’s foremost tellers of stories about Black identity and the Black experience, looking to the work of James Baldwin and Tarell Alvin McCaney’s unpublished play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue to tell stories that have both a timeless appeal and a sense of urgency in needing to be heard now.
Jenkins's next project, which is based on similarly illustrious source material, looks set to burnish that reputation. This time he’s tackling Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, which reimagines the network of safe houses, through which escaped slaves fled to the north in the first half of the 19th century, as a literal train track, carrying fugitives to safety. The book was one of Barack Obama’s reading list picks when he was in office, and won Whitehead the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
Here’s everything we know about Amazon’s The Underground Railroad TV series so far.
What’s the story?
Whitehead’s novel tells the story of Cora Randall and Caesar, two slaves on a Georgia plantation in the 19th century, who escape slavery and flee to the free states in the north via a literal Underground Railroad – it’s got conductors, puffs of steam, choo chooing, the whole shebang.
They’re pursued by a slave catcher called Ridgeway, who’s especially motivated to recapture them because Cora’s mother, Mabel, was the only escaped slave he never tracked down. Cora, in turn, was inspired to risk death by fleeing the plantation because she thought her mother had abandoned her.
We don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so we’ll just say that from there a game of cat and mouse ensues that explores ideas of identity and otherness, of self-ownership, vigilante justice, self-sacrifice and the meaning of liberty. In other words, it’s a story based in a fictionalised past that reflects the times we still live in, and shows how slavery’s ripples are still being felt. As such, Jenkins’s TV adaptation couldn't be more timely.
That said, Jenkins has said that it’s not actual about slavery. Or, perhaps, not solely. “It’s a show about the character Cora,” he said, in an interview with Shadow and Act. “I think when we talk about slavery, in a way, we almost dehumanise the folks who were enslaved against their will. We almost rob them of their personhood. We assume the condition of being enslaved was the totality of their experience and the totality of their humanity.”
Is The Underground Railroad based on a true story?
Yes, in a way. The actual Underground Railroad was a network run by escaped slaves and abolitionists that helped transport those still in captivity to freedom. Unlike in the novel, however, its name was allegorical. The real life Underground Railroad was a series of secret routes and safe houses, stretching from the southern states all the way to Mexico in the south, and Canada in the north. In a manner similar to the French resistance, a group of people came together to help free the enslaved, taking them through checkpoints, housing them where they wouldn’t be discovered and leading them towards freedom.
The train imagery was used as a metaphor for the different parts of the Railroad: guides who helped the enslaved were known as “agents” or “conductors”, hiding places were “stations” and people who helped hide the escapees were known as “station masters”.
Information about the Underground Railway was passed along by word of mouth to ensure its secrecy, and it’s estimated that by 1850, around 100,000 people had found their freedom via this covert network. Considering that, in 1860, around 4m people were enslaved in the south, its effectiveness as an escape network is still debated. As a motivating myth, however, its power was undeniable.
Who’s directing it, and who’s starring?
Amazon Prime Studios first greenlit the project back in 2017. In the same interview with Shadow and Act, Jenkins explained that he had always envisioned the project as a series, even when he was pitching an adaptation to Whitehead.
“I want to have the opportunity to go past the assumptions of the conditions of an enslaved person and past the reductions of humanity of an enslaved person,” he said. “I think to do that, I need 10 hours. I need 10 episodes. I can’t do it in two hours. And I’m glad he said, ‘I agree’.”
South African actor Thuso Mbedu stars as Cora Randall, while Londoner Aaron Pierre plays Caesar. Joel Edgerton is Ridgeway, and the cast’s rounded out by Chase W Dillon (as Homer), Justice Leak (as James Randall) and William Jackson Harper (as Royal).
Filming took place in 2019 in and around Richmond Hill in Savannah, Georgia, as well as in Dawsonville at Highway 53 and Lumpkin Campground. Other scenes were shot in the Terminal Station in Macon, Georgia – presumably that’s the train parts – as well as Newborn.
What does Jenkins say about the series?
Given the themes of the story, and its roots in true history, it was inevitable that it would be an emotional production, but Jenkins told IndieWire that it really sunk deep within him: “It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done, not because it was difficult to make physically, but just emotionally.
“I’ve never cried on set, with anything I’ve made. On this one, at least once every two weeks somebody would be like, ‘you alright man?’ I would have to walk… off the set for 10 or 15 minutes because I was just distraught. Our guidance counsellor pulled me off set one day and would not let me continue to direct.”
Understandable, perhaps, considering the subject matter and the fact that the project’s been in his brain for a while. In an interview with Deadline, he revealed that he got the urge to adapt it as soon as he read Whitehead's novel. “It’s one of those things where I read the book, even before Moonlight premiered, and it wasn’t a very Hollywood thing. I’m an Amazon Prime subscriber, and they delivered this book a day before it released as a Prime perk and I just devoured it. I fell in love with the main character.
“As visual storyteller, it felt like it wanted to be six to eight hours. You want to go on this journey with this character. Not the possibility of a continuing series, and 40 hours, but just eight hours. I think we live in a time right now where the market will create the format that is proper for each story. As a filmmaker, you can look around and there are all these different places where stories can be told, and this story felt appropriate for a limited series format.”
Is there a trailer?
After several alluring teasers over the past few months, the official trailer dropped on 15 April, stringing together some one the snippets we've seen as well as giving us plenty of new material to feast on. Jenkins shared the trailer on his Twitter account last night, writing 'May 14th. The work of the last four years of my life... is yours.'
The trailer is set to the powerful score by Nicholas Britell – the composer who worked with Jenkins on the music for Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, and also gifted the world the powerful theme tune to Succession.
"Nothing was given, all was earned. Hold on to what belongs to you," goes the tagline of the movie, and the film looks to follow on from Jenkins's emotionally powerful previous work. The trailer features dramatically coloured skylines, close-up shots of wide-eyed faces and one particularly brilliant looking scene where a figure holding a flame up in the darkness of the underground railroad.
What’s the release date for The Underground Railroad?
Clear your upcoming schedule because the 10-episode limited series will begin on Amazon Prime on 14 May.
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