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Jenkins' 'Underground Railroad,' Balances Beautiful Images With Brutality

NOEL KING, HOST:

The director Barry Jenkins creates images like no one else. He puts a face or a landscape on film, and you can't get it out of your head. And he's empathetic. He doesn't film fictions. He films humans. When he started working on an adaptation of Colson Whitehead's book "The Underground Railroad," he was walking a line. What images convey the brutality of slavery but also the beauty of being alive? Cora is a young woman escaped from slavery on a railroad that runs underground. It's her story. Jenkins thought constantly about what of her story we would see and what we would not.

There's one particular shot, a point-of-view shot that I want to ask you about. An enslaved man is being burned alive as punishment while behind him, white people are holding a garden party. And we see the party very briefly through the dying man's eyes. I don't know if I've ever seen anything like that. Can you tell me about that choice?

BARRY JENKINS: Yeah. It was important to me, again, if we're going to recreate these images, what new are we saying about them? What are we revealing about them that hasn't been revealed before? My relationship with these images was, you know, learning about the Jim Crow South and learning about the lynchings of African Americans and always seeing the aftermath of these moments where the white perpetrators of these atrocities are looking directly at the camera. And my ancestor is in the background inanimate.

And so I wanted to give the character agency in that moment. I wanted to embody him in that moment. And I wanted the audience to have to understand that these things aren't just happening to no one. They're happening to someone. And I wanted the audience to not be able to shirk the responsibility of knowing that we see these things. The same way the audience has - is watching this thing, the man who's being aggrieved is also seeing these horrific faces of the brutalizers who are staring at him in the spectacle.

KING: Your aesthetic is very beautiful, which is something that you're known for. And it doesn't go away in this series. It is beautiful. How do you balance these beautiful images with the subject matter? And were there moments where you're like, it's too pretty - I can't do that?

JENKINS: There were moments where I thought it was too pretty - I can't do that. We filmed the show entirely in the state of Georgia. And in the state of Georgia and the period during the condition of American slavery, there were horrific things occurring all the time. And yet it was ravishingly beautiful.

KING: Yeah.

JENKINS: It wasn't incumbent upon me to take that beauty, to remove that beauty in pursuit of some verisimilitude or gravitas or truth. To be honest, I think it's even more horrific and more brutal that amidst such natural beauty and amidst such ravishing beauty of my ancestors, these people still allowed themselves to commit certain atrocities.

KING: Cora is played by a South African actress named Thuso Mbedu.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where you coming from?

THUSO MBEDU: (As Cora) Indiana.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Name?

MBEDU: (As Cora) Randall, Cora Randall.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Free or runaway?

MBEDU: (As Cora) I'm not sure.

KING: I thought it was very difficult to tell how old she was. At times, I thought she's a teenager. She's 14 or 15. And other times, I was like, no, she's very clearly in her 20s. And I didn't look it up deliberately. I just - I didn't want to know. Can you tell me about her?

JENKINS: I think the quality you speak of was something I was looking for. At the beginning of the show, you know, this woman doesn't have full possession of herself. And as she goes on this journey, I think her essence comes to the surface. And so you're right. There are episodes where she looks 16. And then there are episodes where she looks 66. And that's not through hair and makeup and wardrobe. That's just through this feeling, you know, channeling, you know, where this woman is in her journey.

KING: So toward the end - I'm not going to give anything away - but there's this very idyllic period of communion and safety, and people are happy. And it made my head spin because, of course, people back then had good times. But you look at photographs from the time, I'm thinking, like, from the Federal Writers' Project - and taken of people who'd been enslaved. And they look really sad and really severe and really tired. And when you look at those pictures, it's hard to imagine those people smiling. And then you watch the series, and it's those same people, the - like, those same faces. And they're happy, and they're alive.

JENKINS: Look, Noel. This is what the task is for creators like me because in order for me to exist, there is no doubt there had to have been moments of communion, moments of joy, moments of love. And yet those moments have been lost to the historical record. But who controls the historical record? And so in the creation of these images, it's not a corrective. It's just a speaking towards the truth. I think so much of the show for me is about parenting and about showing the wonderful job that my ancestors did in this parenting because I believe my ancestors, in order for me to exist, for MLK, for Barack Obama, for every damn thing, this had to have been one of the greatest acts of collective parenting the world has ever seen - has ever seen.

KING: We had a very small team working on this, watching the series before we interviewed you. And two of us are Black. And we talked about what - sorry, let me collect.

JENKINS: No, take your time.

KING: So we were talking about how we were reminded of our families and their old pictures and their old stories and also that there are old stories that we can't know about them and, you know, why some of us look the way we look because of slavery. And some of it really hurts. But this series reminded us that it is amazing that Black people are still here and that we survived all of that. And there is something really miraculous about it.

JENKINS: It is amazing. And, you know, in the making of the show, in the beginning, it was hard, Noel. It was very hard. But as time went on and I looked around at all these Black folks in all these spaces - 'cause I can't trace my ancestry back more than a generation, if that. And yet I would see the background actors, and I would just want to hug them because I would realize, oh, this is my ancestor. They were blacksmiths and herbalists and midwives and spiritualists. And here they were fully in the flesh. And it began to bring me so much joy to celebrate and honor them, you know, for the things they've done so that I could stand in this cotton field on this plantation to manifest language, to create images in their image.

And it felt so beautiful and so whole and so fulfilling that I realized, this is what the show is about. This is why the journey is worth it. So thank you for saying that. You know, I don't know if anybody is going to watch the show. You know, I hope many people do. But when they do, I hope they see the same thing that you guys saw.

KING: Barry Jenkins directed and adapted Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad." It's out now on Amazon Prime.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "BESSIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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