Barry Jenkins Discusses ‘The Underground Railroad’ and Adapting Colson Whitehead’s Novel

Oscar-winning writer/director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) brings Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad to life in a limited series premiering on Amazon Prime Video on May 14, 2021. Jenkins was a big admirer of Whitehead’s novel and felt the material would translate well as a 10-episode series rather than a feature film.

“I think 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 think some of the images in the show due to the subject matter, I wanted the audience to have the opportunity [to] 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,” explained Jenkins during a Zoom press conference hosted by Amazon.

“I think, secondly, some of these images are rooted in fact or in truth of the actual lived experience. I think in a shorter timeframe, those images can be so loud that they overwhelm what I call the softer images. And so, I felt like giving Cora the full space to encounter all these beautiful people [indicating the cast members participating in the Zoom conference], giving her the full space to do that over the course of 10 episodes versus one feature I felt was like the best way to capture the full spectrum of her experience.”

Jenkins’ adaptation of The Underground Railroad utilizes surreal imagery, most notably with an actual train running below ground. When asked about that choice, Jenkins recalled that as a child he pictured “the underground railroad” as a real train that ran on tracks underground.

“I saw Black people on trains underground in a very grounded way,” said Jenkins. “I just knew it was real because as a child, you know, you grow up no matter – and I grew up in a very hard way – but you just don’t have those filters that, ‘Oh, this thing isn’t possible. These people can’t, or that thing didn’t.’ There’s just none of it, and so I heard it and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, of course we built trains underground.’

So, when I first read Colson’s book, I got this feeling again. And even in the book, there’s no trains levitating. The trains aren’t flying in the sky. It’s just that Black folks built them underground, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is kind of dope.’ And so, right away, I wanted to lean into this feeling – this uncorrupted feeling, I like to describe it – that I had as a child. As we went through the process of making the show, the symbolism that the question refers to, the surrealism, all those things came out of these very grounded symbols.

I remember my grandma used to keep a penny in a jar under her bed. You know, it was these rituals that are passed down, and if those rituals can inspire a real belief, they have power. And I thought, ‘Oh, how can we, in telling Cora’s story, how can we through this journey take some of these other things, these very grounded things that our ancestors had from the detritus, you know, of the harsh life they were living, and they repossessed those things and gave them a new meaning?’

It felt like an opportunity to do that on the scale of the story that Colson Whitehead gifted to me. It came part and parcel with the piece.”

Jenkins wanted everything about the railroad to fill real and authentic. He wanted to avoid the use of blue screen and CGI, and instead have real trains on actual tracks pass through real tunnels. “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 of some of this history has been lost, the historical record. I think that’s why we’re creating these images in our image now.

I remember when Thuso [Mbedu, “Cora”] first comes down off the tracks. I said to her…and she must’ve thought I was crazy…I was like, ‘I think you need to get on the ground and you have to touch it. And not only do you have to touch it, you have to like bang on it just because this is like if aliens came down, walked to your front door, and handed you a pepperoni pizza, that’s how strange this would be.’

And when we did it, because it was early in the shoot, I just remember just seeing her get down on her knees and bang on this actual track. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of what it felt like as a kid.’”

The Underground Railroad
Thuso Mbedu as Cora in ‘The Underground Railroad’ (Photo © 2021 Amazon Studios)

One of the challenges of adapting Colson Whitehead’s gripping novel for the series was in translating the characters’ internal thoughts and feelings without excessive voiceovers. Jenkins credits his superb cast with making the adaptation work.

“You know, it’s all casting,” explained Jenkins. “When you read a book, you can’t see anything. Because we can see things, I thought, ‘Oh, there’s interiority in the things the characters are choosing to take with them. There’s interiority in the way the characters are choosing to present themselves, choosing to literally carry themselves.’”

“This was a long process. We optioned this book before Moonlight finished awards season, and then we made a whole film in-between and released it, so there was a long gestation process. I kind of had it in my head of where the adaption was going to really flourish in this medium,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins added, “And then as we were making it, it was just one of the things that was really cool about doing this. It’s 116 days. I’ve only ever done 34 days. After about the 24th day, the cast and crew was just cooking. Now, for Thuso and Joel [Edgerton], that was great because they’re there the whole time. Everyone else had to come in at these intervals and just kind of like slip into Thuso’s wavelength.

But what was really great was watching the actors create story, generate story, with their performance and then being able to go, ‘Okay, cool. I thought I adapted the book into these scripts and built all these sets. And now the actors are adapting my adaptation to the thing that’s actually real. They’re actualizing it.’”

“And that was when everything just… I mean, so much sh*t just opened up. There were so many things in the show that I can’t personally take credit for and I’ll only mention one because we’re talking about symbols. The okra seeds, you know, Matt Marks my prop master who worked with me on Beale Street walked into my office in Savannah one day and said, ‘This is a pod of okra, Barry.’ I go, ‘All right, cool. Why are you showing me a pod of okra?’ And then we had to build Mabel’s plot and figure out what’s actually going in it,” recalled Jenkins. “He shows me this okra pod and I go, ‘It looks dead.’ He goes, ‘It is. You know, we’ve been in drought for six months.’

He goes, ‘But I wanted to show you this,’ and he wrung it out over my desk. And all these seeds just landed on my desk. They made a sound, and then he picked one up and he put it right in front of me. He said, ‘No matter how dry this gets if you plant it, it will grow.’

And if you’ve seen the show, you know exactly what happened just from the prop master walking into my office and showing me this thing. I think that’s where the adaptation really came alive and where everyone from these beautiful people on [the Zoom conference] to the prop master being, like, ‘I want to contribute.’ I think this is something very interesting. This is how we take this from page to screen.”

“You know, for me, [it’s] the most satisfying creative experience of my life,” said Jenkins.

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The cast of the Amazon Prime Video limited series includes Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Pierre, William Jackson Harper, Sheila Atim, and Amber Gray. Peter De Jersey, Chukwudi Iwuji, Damon Herriman, Lily Rabe, Irone Singleton, Mychal-Bella Bowman, Marcus “MJ” Gladney, Jr., Will Poulter, and Peter Mullan also star.

The Underground Railroad premieres only on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, May 14, 2021.