By Sean Boelman
The Underground Railroad is Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins’s first foray into the medium of television, and his touch can be felt all over the series. We at disappointment media got the opportunity to attend a virtual press conference featuring director/showrunner Jenkins and cast members Thuso Mbedu, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Pierre, William Jackson Harper, and Sheila Atim. Check out what we learned below!
The series is based on the acclaimed novel by Colson Whitehead. This is what Jenkins had to say about adapting the source material: “I think the biggest thing for me, one I love the book. I thought Colson had created a really great opportunity to maybe even recontextualize the story of our ancestors by focusing on this young woman Cora. You watch the show, and, you know, there's this version where maybe without seeing it, you assume for 10 episodes, Cora is trying to vanquish the condition of American slavery. But what she's really after is she's trying to reconcile this sense of abandonment she feels towards her mother. And I thought that was a really interesting way to come at a story like this to present this very, I think, truthful but also just massive in scope and scale journey that was ultimately about parenting and about a daughter's relationship to her mother.”
For Jenkins, a serialized format was the only way to tell this story. Here’s why: “When you go into a movie theater, it's a very captive experience. You kind of have to surrender yourself. You're in the middle of a 30-seat aisle. You turn your phone off. I wanted the audience to have the opportunity. You can pause. You can play. You can skip. You can choose whom you want to watch this with, or whether you want to watch it alone. So that was part of the reason why I felt like it had to be a series.”
In bringing this story to life, Jenkins utilized some terrific imagery and symbolism. Some of the most memorable moments in the series bring the eponymous network to the screen in a literal sense. This is what Jenkins had to say about that: “The first things we did were all the trains and the tunnels. And I told Mark Freidberg, our production designer, because I'm working from this childhood memory, ‘This can't be fake. I want real tracks, real trains, real tunnels. I don't want blue screen, and I don't want CGI.’ And so we found a private rail network and we built our tunnels above them. And so much of this project was trying to contextualize what it would've been like to be my ancestors which is a very difficult thing to do and just because some of this history has been lost, I think that's why we're creating these images in our image now.”
Still, Jenkins does not shy away from the horrors of what he is presenting. When asked if the world is ready to see his vision, he said: “I do think the audience is ready for it. And if they aren't, I think that's fine too. You know, I think the thing that's really beautiful about putting images into the world is that, when someone is ready to find that image, it will be there. And I think in creating this show it honored our ancestors. I think we were respectful of ourselves, respectful of the text, and respectful of the audience. So, I do think folks are ready. I wouldn't have made it if I didn't think they were.”
The Underground Railroad streams on Amazon Prime beginning May 14.