Reggie Ugwu on how Barry Jenkins and his band of indie film-makers made television's most ambitious take on American slavery since Roots.
There was only one time when he seriously thought about quitting. The project, a 10-episode series for Amazon, had just been announced, in the fall of 2016. Within hours of the news — BARRY JENKINS TO ADAPT HOT NOVEL UNDERGROUND RAILROAD — the tweets had arrived.
"THIS is what he's doing after "Moonlight"? I HATE slave movies. Do we really need more images of Black people getting brutalised?"
Jenkins almost pulled the plug right then. He could have moved on to something else — a rom-com, maybe, or a beloved Disney cartoon — but that didn't feel right. There was a story he needed to tell. Not about the physical violence of slavery, but something subtler, about the psychic and emotional scourge, and the unfathomable spiritual strength required for any individual — let alone an entire people — to have come out alive.
That kind of story had rarely been done justice in Hollywood. And it was personal for Jenkins, who, with Moonlight and his third film, If Beale Street Could Talk, had crafted memorable portraits of Black tenderness under threat.
And yet the question of how to handle the violence remained. Jenkins found his answer in a surprising place for an art-house film-maker: a focus group. During preproduction, Amazon offered to ask a group of Atlanta residents which parts of Colson Whitehead's 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, that won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, they found most resonant. Jenkins agreed but made two stipulations. First, the participants should be Black. Second, they should be asked an additional question: Should the novel, both harrowing and largely faithful to the historical record of anti-Black terrorism in the United States, be adapted for the screen at all?
"To my surprise, only 10 per cent of the people said that it shouldn't be done," Jenkins told me, when I visited him in Atlanta near the set of The Underground Railroad in February of last year, two weeks before the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic.
"The other 90 per cent were like, 'Tell it, but you have to show everything. It needs to be hard. It needs to be brutal,'" he continued. "I realised that my job was going to be pairing the violence with its psychological effects — not shying away from the visual depiction of these things but focusing on what it means to the characters. How are they beating it back? How are they making themselves whole?"
The result of that effort, perhaps the most widely anticipated television series about slavery since Roots debuted in 1977, premieres on May 14 on Amazon Prime Video. It is a significant bet for the streaming service, its boldest volley yet in a battle for subscribers with Netflix, Disney, Apple and Warner Media, among others. (Amazon declined to say what the series cost, but a person involved with filming said that, on more than one occasion, daily production costs nearly exceeded the entire budget of Moonlight, approximately $1.5 million.)
The show also arrives at a pivotal moment in the continuing fight for racial justice, in which recent viral videos of violence against Black people, including cellphone footage of the murder of George Floyd, have been both a toxin and a catalyst. The Underground Railroad is in part an attempt to contextualise modern racial strife with a vivid new origin story.
"This isn't the first slave narrative that's been made but I think we're creating these images in a way, cinematically, that they just haven't been created before," Jenkins said. "And it's funded by the richest man in the world — that's what it takes to tell this story in a respectful way, the way that it demands to be told."
For Jenkins, 41, who directed all 10 episodes, the series was by far the most ambitious and personally challenging undertaking of his career. It was shot in 116 days spread over 13 months, with a six-month shutdown last spring and summer because of Covid-19.
To realise Whitehead's story, about an alternate universe in which the underground railroad is literal rather than metaphorical, the production created antebellum versions of five states (Georgia, where all shooting took place, stood in for the four others: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana), more than 3000 costumes (by the designer Caroline Eselin), a 15-structure plantation and a custom, aboveground tunnel for an actual train. In all, the show employed more than 300 craftspeople who worked over 16,000 hours of construction.
At the centre of it all were the series' stars — Thuso Mbedu, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Pierre and William Jackson Harper — and Jenkins' close-knit circle of collaborators, with whom he has worked consistently for 20 years.
Several members of the cast and crew, whom I spoke with over several months during the making of The Underground Railroad, said they had been changed by the experience.
"This show has broken me, if not once a week, every other week," said Jenkins of the production's emotional toll, the morning after day 101. He was wearing a baseball cap and glasses and rubbed at his temples. "If I was doing this and there weren't people around who I love and who I knew loved me, it would just be too much to bear."
When the producer Adele Romanski first read Whitehead's novel, in the autumn of 2016, the fact that she had no idea how to film it was part of what excited her. She and the others in Jenkins' inner circle — the cinematographer James Laxton, the editor Joi McMillon and the producer Mark Ceryak — who met as film students at Florida State University, had just released Moonlight, a miracle of low-budget film-making shot in 25 days. (It later set a record for the least expensive film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar.)
Moonlight had been a leap of faith and, when the opportunity came to adapt The Underground Railroad — via Plan B, the Brad Pitt-owned production company that co-produced Moonlight — it was another invitation into the unknown.
"There's great power in ignorance, in sort of going with your first instinct," Romanski said. "If you start to consider the sheer scale of magnitude of something, you can crush yourself under the weight of it."
It didn't take long for the magnitude to reveal itself. The first to feel it was the production designer Mark Friedberg, who worked with Jenkins' team on the James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk. Beginning in 2018, Friedberg's department spent six months developing a 300-page look-book that translated each chapter of the journey undertaken by the story's central character, a young enslaved woman named Cora, into a distinct visual style.
When I visited the production, on location in Newborn, Georgia, an old two-storey farmhouse had been converted into the family home of Ridgeway (Edgerton), a scrupulous slave catcher and the book's antagonist. The transformation, complete with an iron smithy converted from an old wood barn, was uncanny, as if the crew had conveniently stumbled upon a portal to the 19th century.
Inside the farmhouse, I caught up with Romanski, 38, whose long brown hair was tucked beneath an ochre beanie, while the rest of the crew filmed a scene outside. She had recently flown in from Germany, where Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a film she, Jenkins and Ceryak helped produce, had won second prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.
What does it feel like going from small budget indie films to this?
ROMANSKI: It's like going from managing a mom-and-pop shop to becoming the CEO of some Fortune 500 company. When I step on to the set every day, I am amazed at what I see around me in terms of our footprint and our resources and our scale.
There's a way in which this feels like your version of a blockbuster epic or a superhero movie. Do you think you'll take on more projects of this scope?
ROMANSKI: We had meetings with people after Moonlight — "Do you want to do our $100 million World War II movie?" — and we were like, "'Nah, we want to do James Baldwin." I think we like to do highly specific, character-driven stories that we haven't seen before, whatever form those may take.
The physical challenge of creating the world was matched by the psychological toll of living in it. The studio hired an on-set counsellor, Kim White, to speak with members of the production whenever they felt overwhelmed by the material. Jenkins said White coached him through his own grief, recalling a particularly challenging day recreating the book's "Freedom Trail," a long road in North Carolina lined with the victims of lynching.
In one of the scenes I watched at the farmhouse, Cora narrowly escapes an apparent attempt at sexual assault. Mbedu, who plays Cora, said there were times when she would get so lost in the character that White had to remind her it wasn't real.
"After 9 or 10 months of shooting, the little tricks that you have for detaching yourself from a scene can become exhausted," Mbedu said. "It's not easy to snap out of that. The counsellor would give me affirmations and remind me of myself: 'You're Thuso, you're Thuso, you're Thuso.'"
Tasked with shooting it all was Laxton — the cinematographer — Jenkins' roommate at Florida State and his closest artistic collaborator since. Much of their work until now, beginning with their first feature together, Medicine for Melancholy, from 2009, has been in developing a visual language for romance. But while there is romance in The Underground Railroad, the story centres on much darker terrain.
"At the end of the day, I would go home and have a think and have a cry, as my own sort of way to cope," Laxton, 40, said. "To walk around in a space where people are dripping with blood from being whipped or hung or mutilated in some way, to have to talk to them, like, 'Can you step to your right to be on your mark a little bit more?' That clearly takes a toll.
"Dealing with what we saw will probably stick with me for a very long time, if not forever," he added. "But I hope these images stick with the people who see this show, too, because it's important for us all to recognize our history."
On my last night at the farmhouse in Newborn, Laxton and Jenkins were outside setting up a shot. A blinding white overhead light, cast against the still, black sky, made it seem as if we were being abducted by aliens. Inside, I had a conversation with McMillon, the editor, about the deeper meaning of the project. We were interrupted at one point by the farm's owner, who had been on hand for the shoot and who wanted to show us a photo of one of the farm's old residents — the daughter of slaves who had belonged to the owner's family.
Travelling across Georgia during production, such reminders of the not-so-distant past were common. The locations manager, Alison A. Taylor, told me she had felt disoriented by the experience of driving past houses flying large Confederate flags on her way to the set. In Madison, where some of the shooting took place, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had thrown a barbecue months before.
McMillon, who worked with Jenkins to sculpt the series during and after production, described what it felt like to filter the horror and possibility of American history through a Black lens.
Is there a different kind of motivation that comes into play given the nature of this story?
McMILLON: Yeah, because we represent so much more than ourselves. You do feel, not the pressure to succeed, but the pressure to represent in the best way possible. You don't want anyone embarrassed to claim you. I think one of the things that we've all taken into account is, when you tell stories like this, it's so much bigger than us.
What do you want people to get out of the show?
McMILLON: The idea of "in spite of". I feel like that is the motto for most Black people in America. Survival in spite of — to find love and laughter and joy in spite of your circumstances. With Cora's journey, the odds are against her from the beginning, and so much of what she goes through is heartbreaking. But, in spite of all that, there's still this hope of a better life, of survival, of making meaningful connections and leaving a lasting impression on this earth.
In August, I spoke to Jenkins while he was working on editing The Underground Railroad."
The crew had filmed all but a handful of sequences before being shut down in March. Jenkins had returned to his home in Los Angeles, where he joined our video call accompanied by Chauncey, a goldendoodle puppy that he and his partner, the film-maker Lulu Wang, had acquired during lockdown.
Other than for Chauncey's daily walks, one of the few times he had gone out in public was to attend a protest march. Jenkins said he had spent the months since video emerged of Floyd's murder, in late May, burying himself in work.
"I think making the show has been the thing that's kept me together," he said.
Occasionally, Jenkins said, something in the news, about the entwined legacies of slavery and policing, or the legitimacy of various strategies of Black resistance, would make him think of crafting new scenes or lines of dialogue that spoke directly to the moment. But he never did.
Nearly two centuries after the story he told takes place, dates and language had changed, he said, but the basic plot remained the same.
"It's all in there," Jenkins said. "And I mean all of it."
Written by: Reggie Ugwu
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Underground Railroad premieres on Amazon Prime Video, May 14
Reggie Ugwu is a pop culture reporter covering a range of subjects, including film, television, music and internet culture. Before joining The Times in 2017, he was a reporter for BuzzFeed News and Billboard magazine. @uugwuu