Barry Jenkins on motive behind creating The Underground Railroad: 'Wanted to honour my ancestors'
The Underground Railroad is slated to release on Amazon Prime Video on 14 May
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins says his upcoming limited series The Underground Railroad, about a woman's struggle to escape slavery in search of freedom in the Antebellum South, is his way of honouring and contextualising the history of people who came before him.
Jenkins, whose film Moonlight won the best picture Oscar in 2017, serves as the showrunner and director on the 10-episode series that will be released on Amazon Prime Video on 14 May.
Critics have praised Jenkins in the early reviews of the show, which the director adapted from Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Asked about the importance of taking ownership of the stories of the African-American heritage, the 41-year-old director said the show was his way of representing and paying tributes to his foreparents.
"I think that's why, to me, it was important to take this project on. As an artist and a person, I think I've evolved to the point where creating these images is how I express myself.
"And as an expression, I've always wanted to create something that would honour my ancestors," Jenkins said in response to a question from Press Trust of India during an international Zoom roundtable interview from Los Angeles.
The director said by doing that, he hopes, he is creating "images that are in the image of the people you're seeking to honour and represent".
"History has been framed for us whether through the history books that I grew up reading in class or as you say, in the piece of media that have been created speaking towards this time in American history. They come from a very concentrated point of view. They've been controlled by a very concentrated group," he said.
"And I think for me, it is important for the people who most directly identify with these characters or who have the most direct relation to them, to be able to recontextualise by adding our creation of these images to the images that have come before. And to me, that was the most important thing about this project. I felt like it was why it was very necessary," he added.
In reality, the underground railroad was not an actual railroad but a complex, secretive network of people and safe houses that helped people enslaved in Southern plantations escape to free states in America or to Canada.
Whitehead's novel tells an alternate version of the story where an actual underground railroad exists. The story chronicles Cora Randall's (played by Thuso Mbedu) desperate bid for freedom in the Antebellum South.
Cora, who always resented her mother Mabel for escaping the plantation without her, manages to run away from her Georgia plantation through the rumoured Underground Railroad one day. She is pursued by a determined bounty hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton).
In her search for freedom, Cora contends with the legacy of the mother that left her behind and her own struggles to realise a life she never thought was possible.
The series has been shot in Georgia, which was a slaveholding state and some of the images stand out for nature's bounty and also the brutality and the unimaginable atrocities that African-American people were subjected to.
Jenkins said he does not agree with the notion that it was somehow "ethically wrong" to recreate the time period with aesthetics.
The director, whose film credits also include If Beale Street Could Talk and Medicine for Melancholy, argued it would have been "almost untruthful to the experience as it was lived by my ancestors".
"The beauty that you see in our images undoubtedly existed at the time that all these very horrific and brutal things were happening.
"In a certain way, I think it makes it even sadder and more horrific that even in the midst of all this proof of the goodness of life, all this proof of the beauty present on this earth, these people still committed such horrific acts. To me, I think it elevates in a certain way, the horrors that we're speaking towards in creating the show," he said.
Jenkins added he wanted to be true to the experience of his ancestors by depicting both the beauty and the horror of that era in the same frame.
"The world is beautiful. It was beautiful when these things were happening. So, we have a beautiful representation of these horrific things," he said.
The Underground Railroad also stars Thuso Mbedu and Chase W Dillon. Aaron Pierre, William Jackson Harper, Sheila Atim, 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 round out the cast.
Jenkins also executive produces with Adele Romanski, Mark Ceryak, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Brad Pitt, Richard Heus, Jacqueline Hoyt and Colson Whitehead. The Underground Railroad is a production of Plan B, Pastel and Big Indie with Amazon Studios.
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