From the Magazine
Barry Jenkins on Bringing Underground Railroad to TV Form
While the Moonlight director was turning Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel into an HBO series, he learned new things about himself.
Coat by Hilton; sweater by Giorgio Armani.
Photograph by John Edmonds. Styled by Jason Rembert.
I think often of those eight minutes of the 2017 Oscars where the thing that no one ever considered might happen actually happened. In a world where Black talent, especially talent that highlights the tender interiority of Black queerness and poverty, feels perpetually overlooked, hearing Jordan Horowitz say the words, “I’m sorry, no. There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture,” felt like a triumph on its own. I cringe when I think of how the room went dead silent, poor Fred Berger’s hopelessness as he finishes his acceptance speech with “we lost, by the way, but, you know.” We are all so used to Black erasure at the service of white achievement that that moment felt inevitable, and yet sacrosanct, like it was sticking its tongue out at the Academy, Megan Thee Stallion style.
The racial implications and significance of that moment aren’t lost on Barry Jenkins, as he’s noted in many an interview. “[The work] is not something that I’m trying to do as a rebuttal of the white gaze—it’s honestly something I don’t give a shit about,” he tells me. But that doesn’t make him oblivious to it—he knows it’s there, he’s just trying to keep the gaze out of the way.
When the trades reported that he would adapt Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad into a TV series, it was incredibly well received, but with a side of some fair and familiar skepticism—skepticism that Jenkins has the patience to sit with, because he gets the overarching critique, but also because he thinks that with Underground, he’s gotten it right. “The reason why there’s skepticism around these stories is because it’s almost become default that in order to receive the funds to create them, in order to break through, they have to be centered on the white gaze or the white characters,” he says in an interview we conduct over Zoom. “I feel like with this show that was not the case.” Even though Jenkins says he ordinarily prefers film over episodic storytelling, when he first spoke to Whitehead, he told the author that a film wouldn’t do it justice, a series was the only way.
The late Toni Morrison says, in The Pieces I Am, “I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.” Jenkins seems to share this urgency and the implicit desire to illustrate the preciousness and perpetual innovation of Black survival. It’s not even that he’s making Black movies for Black people—that’s too simple of a mission statement, as he’s said before. It’s that, at this point in his career, he is breaking the fourth wall to help Black people look themselves in the eye.
“THE BEAUTY, THE FORTUNE, THE PRIVILEGE THAT I HAVE RIGHT NOW IS THAT WITH EACH ITERATION OF MY AESTHETIC, IT’S BECOMING CLEAR,” HE SAYS. “THIS IS WHO BARRY JENKINS IS.”
“So, I’m standing in this cotton field as we’re scouting for the show,” Jenkins says. “It’s the cotton field in episode one…and standing there, I thought to myself, I could buy all the cotton I can see with my eyes right now and burn it to the fucking ground. And I imagined that no one who ever stood in this field picking cotton could ever imagine that there would be a day when that would be the case, that me, a young Black man born into poverty, would be able to afford to just burn this entire field to the ground. Then I realized, yes, they must’ve.”
I ask Jenkins if he thinks he is free. I can see that he is dubious at first. “Am I free,” he questions, “in what way?” “I mean in the most profound way,” I say, “as in, like, do you think that you’re a free Black man?”
He takes a beat to consider, rubbing at the pink collar of his shirt, and finally says, “Yes, I do.
“And yet,” he continues, “that freedom has conditions.”
Thuso Mbedu working with Barry Jenkins.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Blue is his favorite color.
At his dining room table, he sways from left to right, adjusting in his chair. He laughs a bit to break the silence and manages to avoid looking directly at the camera, his eyes darting to the corners of the room or casting downward, his hand gripping his chin as he speaks.
Behind him is a wall that looks like it’s been papered in a beautiful, jungle-inspired print. But it’s paint—the work of a local artist who splattered a mesmerizing system of pinks, greens, grays, and blue streaks of varying opacities onto a midnight-colored base. It’s the blues that stand out. A few strokes of blue paint circle his head like a halo, his very blue jean jacket hugs him like a blanket.
In this home he’s just moved into with his partner, director Lulu Wang, the color blue is alive, just as it is in Jenkins’s work—its significance dances through The Underground Railroad, as it did in Moonlight, as it did in If Beale Street Could Talk, insisting that we recognize the soft vulnerability of Black skin. Jenkins says that blue has been his favorite ever since he was a kid, that it’s a color from which he draws emotion. How it shows up in his work is both intuitive and intentional: He says that he can’t necessarily intellectualize why it’s his favorite, but that its use is, at least in part, inspired by the artist Kerry James Marshall.
According to Jenkins, Marshall “has a very interesting relationship [to] the color black, and with how he builds his colors with the absence of white pigment.” For Underground, he says, they used a process for building the shades of blue that he would incorporate into the moonlight. As the show goes on, “it sort of evolves.”
In the first episode of the Amazon series, the blue moonlight inks the night and falls around the main character, Cora, and the young Black child she attempts to protect, as an expected but horrifying violence occurs. You see immediately that the color has shown up as a guide to help us truly understand the physical cost of slavery on African bodies, to understand the cost of Black defiance and the inhumanity of white domination.
“Free or runaway?” a station agent asks Cora (Thuso Mbedu). “I’m not sure,” she answers, and a surreal world opens.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Before I watched The Underground Railroad, it had been a while since I’d really confronted my own feelings about slave narratives depicted for television and in film. One of my earliest memories is of my father playing the 1997 Steven Spielberg-directed movie Amistad one Saturday morning. I almost vomited from terror as Black bodies that looked like that of my family tossed themselves into the vast ocean, dripping with the blood of their captors. Eventually, my parents introduced dramas like Roots (1977), Sankofa (1993), and Nightjohn (1996) to my memory bank. I ultimately felt as haunted by these works as I felt grateful for them. So grateful, in fact, that I thought they were all I needed to see of American slavery on film. I felt little need to watch depictions that came out when I was older, like 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, or The Birth of a Nation, though ultimately I did see most of those, usually at the behest of a friend during a group movie night. Each time, I came away with the sensation of being in a room where everyone was talking about me but no one was talking to me at all. I came away from the first episode of The Underground Railroad feeling something different entirely. I came away, though I had suffered, feeling immense wonder and relief.
Jenkins grew up in Liberty City, Florida, one of the Blackest and poorest neighborhoods in Miami, during the crack era of the ’80s and ’90s, where he was “extremely, bitterly lonely.” His mother, who worked as a nurse’s aide and had survived sexual abuse, suffered drug addiction while Jenkins was still young. Unable to locate any sense of safety in a turbulent childhood, he withdrew into the tender hold of his own mind.
“I think it made me a really good observer,” he says, “and gave me an active imagination.”
Jenkins took that imagination to film school, where he learned the art of turning his thoughts into images other people could see too. First, he made a short film called My Josephine, about an Arabic-speaking young man who finds love while working at a laundromat in the aftermath of 9/11; then Little Brown Boy, about the fate of Black children tried as adults for the deaths of other Black kids; and then Medicine for Melancholy, a movie I return to over and over, about the illicit relationship of a young Black couple in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. He is working methodically, and with each film you can see Jenkins’s command of the intimate start to break through—the silences of his childhood showing up bit by bit.
It wasn’t until 15 years after My Josephine that the world was punched in the gut with Moonlight. Jenkins became the breakout of the year—but to become the director who makes Moonlight, he had to be the director who made Little Brown Boy and Medicine for Melancholy. And to become the director who makes The Underground Railroad, he had to be the director who can claim Moonlight as his breakout. “The beauty, the fortune, the privilege that I have right now is that with each iteration of my aesthetic, it’s kind of becoming clear,” he says. “This is who the fuck Barry Jenkins is.”
It was the childhood memory of first learning about the Underground Railroad, imagining that it was a real train, with real stops and real stations, that drew him in and compelled him to adapt Whitehead’s book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for fiction, and spent nearly a year on the New York Times Best Sellers list, among other accolades.
After Cora agrees to run away with her lover Caesar on the Underground Railroad, you see them flee deep into the blue-black night, weaving through rows of cotton. After narrowly escaping a set of hog hunters who’ve been alerted of their attempt, Cora and Caesar descend into an underground tunnel, where they discover raised tracks in the ground—it is otherworldly, a thing they have never seen. When the “big, black train” pulls into the station at the end, an image serenely and perfectly out of place, I breathe for the first time in 45 minutes. The whole episode leads up to this moment of exquisite surrealist bliss, and the pain is suddenly worth it.
JENKINS KNOWS SOMETHING ABOUT HOW WE GET TO THE OTHER SIDE OF TRAUMA, TO THE HAUNTING MAGIC OF THE THINGS THAT DESTROY US.
“When I think about the first episode, you know, seven minutes in, you’re getting a very sharp depiction of trauma, but I love that just before that, you have these two lovers standing in a field, they’re having almost a Shakespearean conversation in a certain way,” says Jenkins. “In a very nuanced way, even amidst the trauma, the people, the characters still retain their humanity. And because of that, I think their personhood remains intact. The condition of slavery is not a thing that’s fixed or static or that has fidelity to them as persons. These things are being visited upon them.”
And it’s when he says this that I realize that Jenkins knows something about how we get to the other side of trauma, to the haunting magic of the things that destroy us, how to get to, dance in, and replicate that wonder. “If there is shame in these images,” he says, “the shame is not ours.”
So much of art making is carving blind in the night and awaking the next morning to see what you’ve built. You won’t always know what you’re doing until it’s done. Jenkins calls this his tunnel vision. Among other things the show is about, he says, it’s “about my mom. And me learning in my 20s that so many of [her] problems were built around assault, and a broken heart.”
“And the shame—it isn’t mine. But it isn’t hers either.”
Mbedu on one of the show’s uncannily impressionistic sets.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
When I ask Whitehead, who is an executive producer, what made him trust Jenkins, he gives two reasons: First, after he saw Moonlight, he was blown away by Jenkins’s ability to see his characters. “[Barry] kept everyone’s essential humanity foregrounded even in the face of tragedy and trauma and brutality.” And the second: “I had to interview him before I signed off. And, you know, I don’t know what to ask filmmakers—‘Are there any slavery movies that inspired you or that you look to for inspiration?’ He was like, ‘Slave movies? No, I was thinking Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master.’ And I was like, ‘OK, you got it, you say two of my favorite movies in the last 20 years or so, take it.’ ”
And while Jenkins stays true to the novel, which he read and reread throughout the process, Jenkins knew it was up to him to give the script its own universe. “I remember my grandmother used to keep a penny in a jar under the bed,” he says. “These things are very tactile objects that gain sublimated, surrealistic, spiritual qualities just through this sense of belief, through something within the person that is giving the item its power. And so, no one’s going to levitate in this show. But there’s a way to build images to where you feel like something mystical is happening.”
Jenkins knows what constrains him.
In If Beale Street Could Talk, he changes James Baldwin’s 1974 ending to give his mostly Black viewership a happy ending, or at least a happier one. Jenkins has the power to change the parameters of the original experience to fit his understanding of what a good cinematic experience of this work would feel like for viewers, especially Black ones. “If you go purely by the ending of the book, then this child in the last three pages or three minutes of the story loses both its grandfather and his father. And I just couldn’t have that on my soul.”
I ask Jenkins if he feels lonely, and first he says no. He has his love, Lulu, a partnership that he says inspires and adds rigor to creative practice. They’re both from Miami and met through a mutual friend, another filmmaker. “It’s funny, I have friends who say directors should never be in a relationship. And I guess maybe if both the directors are raging narcissists then that could be the case.”
Says Wang, separately, “I always felt like everything was in competition with my work versus my personal life, my freedom versus domesticity, you know, particularly, I think as a female in this world, as a straight female in this world who has relationships with straight men, so I had this vision for the kind of relationship I wanted, which was that swing in the [amusement park] that spins with all the strings.” She compares the relationship to an infinite tether between exploring the world and a connection to home—“we both are expansive. We want each other to continue to grow.”
Their relationship, says Jenkins, is “naturally, organically very giving and selfless,” and quarantine has taught them that they are the perfect pair, the antidote to the doom. Plus there’s the dog, “so, yeah, all that’s hitting.”
Young Cora (Mikaela Kimani Armstrong) and her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim).
Courtesy of Amazon Studios.
But then he takes a breath and looks off to the side of the room pensively. “Actually, yeah, I am lonely.” He means a different kind of loneliness, a more insidious one. “Especially with this one, because it’s such a long journey. And in this case, sometimes writing with the camera, a lot of times I can’t explain to someone—you don’t have time to explain to someone—why you’re doing something or what the intent of the thing is. Because in explaining it, you kind of lose grasp of it, you kind of have to keep a part of yourself closed off. That loneliness doesn’t go away. It takes on a different quality.”
Jenkins is a man who likes his solitude. He loves to write, and to walk the yard of his new home, to sit out in the sun to feel the intimacy of its warmth and the glow of the pool he never uses. He’s writing a script with Leonardo DiCaprio for a feature adaptation of the documentary Virunga, about Congolese park rangers fighting to protect endangered gorillas amid oil-company exploitation. Even though it’s “real heavy shit,” getting to write that script and be in its world is relaxing.
When Jenkins was on the way home from press week in New York City, TSA inspected a Kerry James Marshall monograph that he had bought at Marshall’s Met Breuer exhibition.
Ominously, the officers left behind a note letting him know that they’d inspected it. This event, he says, “really got inside of him”—a reminder that this threat perception and the surveillance inherent to it is one of the conditions of being a free Black man making Black art in a Western society.
Marshall, who is slightly ahead of him in this, has become a rabbi of sorts, a guide, or even a kind of father figure. Jenkins listens to every lecture and every Q&A: “When I’m around the house or I’m in the car, I just put him on and I listen to him speak. And you know why? I don’t know that I hear loneliness in his voice”—Jenkins cocks his head to the side and smiles, not effusive, but almost childlike, as if he’s suddenly warming from a brisk cold—“but I feel a bit less alone when I’m listening to him.”
TAILOR, GRIFFIN JARRETT. PRODUCED ON LOCATION BY HEN’S TOOTH PRODUCTIONS. FOR DETAILS, GO TO VF.COM/CREDITS.
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