The Epic Journey to ‘The Underground Railroad’Breaking News
tags: slavery, literature, fiction, Colson Whitehead, television
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 brutalized?
Jenkins almost pulled the plug right then. He could have moved onto 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 filmmaker: 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,” which 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 percent 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 Organization declared a global pandemic.
“The other 90 percent were like, ‘Tell it, but you have to show everything. It needs to be hard. It needs to be brutal,’” he continued. “I realized 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 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.)