Barry Jenkins: ‘The Underground Railroad’

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Director, Barry Jenkins. Photo by Emma McIntye/Getty Images

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Academy Award winning director Barry Jenkins, whose newest project is the Amazon series “The Underground Railroad” based on the book by Colson Whitehead. Jenkins won the Oscar for directing the film “Moonlight,’ and his other works include “Medicine for Melancholy” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” In this week’s conversation, Jenkins talks about the difference between the fact-based truth and the emotional truth of a story. He discusses the theme of Black motherhood in his films, and he talks about balancing a lot of plot with time for his characters to breathe. 

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. My guest today is Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins, and his newest project is his Amazon adaptation of Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad." One of the things that I find fascinating about the way you work is that you are always aware of the color spectrum when it comes to people of color. There's so much red in this, and I think you're so aware of the visceral power of the color red and how it makes people react to people of color.

Barry Jenkins: It's interesting you point that out because in "Medicine for Melancholy," if you look at our raw data, it's entirely red because we knew we were going to desaturate the image, but we wanted to retain even in this black and white prism, some warmth in the characters' skin. In the first and last episode [of “Underground Railroad”], this idea of red, these very warm tones were very important both in the wardrobe, but also yes, reflected in the characters' skins.

KCRW: I also find myself thinking of the way you use sunrises and sunsets.

Jenkins: Yeah, we filmed the show entirely in the state of Georgia, and we filmed it primarily in the winter, fall into winter, and so, it was impossible to make the show without capturing every single second of the daylight. For me, it was interesting because, from the fall to winter solstice, the sun rises in the east, but it rises from a point farther and farther south. And so if you're standing anywhere, especially as these characters in the state of Georgia watching the sunrise, you are looking towards the motherland, and there was something about that that resonated with me.

KCRW: I found myself thinking about characters trying to find where they're standing in literal and metaphoric terms, as a part of the book, and that seems to be happening here, too: trying to figure out where to plant themselves in the room and which way they should be standing. 

Jenkins: Yeah, and it's interesting because sometimes Cora is trying to decide whether she will plant herself or not. So much of her legacy is tied up in this plot, and she's carrying the seeds, and yet she arrives at a different state. We decided in the writers room that she is manifesting these places. She gets to North Carolina, and there is a block because she's not ready to leave behind the thing she's left behind in South Carolina. So it was one of those really meta layers of the narrative that, for us, myself and James Laxton (the director of photography), then also all the writers in the writers’ room was really fun to play with.

KCRW: I find myself thinking about the saying, "those who can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it," and for those of us people of color, we don't have the luxury of not remembering the past, because we have to ask ourselves where we are, because at some point it will repeat itself. That's something that you've visited in everything you've done: people's relationship with the past and that idea of repetition that's forced on people of color, even to some extent in "Beale Street."

Jenkins: Yeah, and it's interesting to have this idea of memory; there's intellectual memory, and then there's emotional and spiritual memory as well. I think the history of Black folks in America hasn't always been recorded or articulated in the journals and in the letters and, certainly as a public school kid, in the textbooks that are designed to teach us that history. And yet the memory of them and feeling, an emotion and spirit, that is undeniable. And it's why when we're making these things, especially this one, and Colson gave us this great gift, this is alternative fiction. He likes to say, it's a very truthful representation of the history of Black folks in America, but it's not fact based. I think in the same way, when we're making these things, we're trying to have an emotional truth, not necessarily be limited to a factual truth. 

KCRW: That moment in Episode Two, where Mr. Henry's teaching someone how to use the bullwhip and Cora's reaction to that. The idea for you that memory, and the tactile, and the visceral power of memory is always a part of the way people live their lives and the things you do as a filmmaker.

Jenkins: And what's shocking about that scene to me is: yes, watching him create this spectacle is very clearly giving her this visceral PTSD, taking the post out of the PTSD and making it very present. I look at him also. The whole museum is designed to recontextualize that history and make it something very sweet and very docile, and yet, once he starts performing the truth of that history, it comes out and reveals itself. And when I think this is how, so much of this history, again, talking about this idea of memory, of how it plays out, and sometimes when we get these images of policing of the rule of law run amok to the detriment, to the destruction, to the death of Black lives, we're also seeing, just like in that scene, this history revealing itself, unbeknownst to the perpetrators of this violence.

KCRW: Yeah, because it's an actual distance to them; they can do something like that, wield a whip, and it has no kind of racial memory for them, or not the way that we experience it.

Jenkins: It has no racial memory, and also there is no memory of it. Because I create the narrative, I create the images of what the history was. I've been creating it everyday you walk into a classroom and have to read this textbook that tells me about the migration of Africans into America and the work they did here building America, rather than referring to these things in a very truthful way, or even more fact based way of what they actually were.

KCRW: The extreme that often exists in your work and very much is present in "Underground Railroad" is that sort of gap and proximity between cruelty and considerate, and that's a moment that we're talking about when that happens when somebody is trying to be very careful about creating this thing, and completely unaware of the repercussions of that violence.

Jenkins: In my research and in Colson's research as well, some of which he shared with me, that was what it was.  And then being in the state of Georgia filming this, and sometimes I'm standing in spaces where these things happened, where I'm surrounded by trees that were there to bear witness to some of these atrocities that we were recreating. The natural resplendent beauty of these locations would be ever present and always affirming itself. And then on a moment's notice, these acts of horrendous violence, of outrageous brutality, will coexist side by side. And I do believe, again, that was a truth-based representation of what it was. I didn't create this beauty. I didn't bring these things here. I just happened to be in the spaces where these things took place. And this is what it is.

KCRW: I just find myself flashing back on so much of your work. The moments in "Moonlight"  between a mother and son, where she's not aware. That moment of trying to be considerate, but a complete miscalculation of that, and how that can be care for one person and cruelty for somebody else. We see something in "Beale Street" as well. That almost absurd distance and proximity between those impulses fascinates me.

Jenkins: It fascinates me as well, and I think also when you have these things in relation to each other, I think their existence makes more sense to me, at least, because I don't think anyone's experience is all one thing. I think the tragedy of life sometimes is that there are people for whom life is incredibly difficult. And yet, maybe every now and then you get a taste of this other version of life, and there's this imbalance between people who have access to one experience and people who are forced to live their entirety in this other existence. And so I think having a work of art, or an essay or an interview, that can house both things, I think is always a bit more truthful of what life really is.

KCRW: I think about that peculiar observer that you see in somebody like Hou Hsiao-hsien who does something where we're watching something happening in real time. And seeing how that prism that separates us, makes us one thing for one person and something else for the person who's the recipient of the act.

Jenkins: Yeah, I mean, the good thing for us, myself, and James Laxton, the cinematographer, and Nicolas Patel, as well, is, whether it's light or dark, good or bad, we treat it with the same sort of approach. 

In "Moonlight," one of my favorite shots is when André Holland who plays the character, Kevin, sets a kettle on the stove to make tea, and we just cut to the shot of the pot waffling, on this rickety stovetop, and there was something as romantic about that, as beautiful about that, as these two boys resting their heads on each other's shoulder for the first time. And I think because of that, sometimes, as you're referring to these extremes, they can coexist, I think because we're approaching them the same way.

KCRW: That moment of respite that you're talking about in "Moonlight" that you build to, happens here [in "Underground Railroad"], too.

Jenkins: Yeah, it does. And, you know, maybe someday I'll give people an ending where the main character does a dance and gets the job and strives triumphantly towards the sunset. But I can't get away from, again, the truth of what these characters' journeys is going to continue to be, which is always really important for me. 

There was this wonderful review of the movie that came out. This critic, Angelica Jade Bastién for Vulture wrote about this notion of Cora as a cipher, the main character. I thought that was really, really interesting. I think Cora is a very embodied individualist person, but the idea of her as a cipher doesn't bother me at all because if she is, then in a certain way, she is us. 

You know, you and I are both Black men living in America with a reasonable amount of success and yet, someone broke into my garage a couple of weeks ago, and I was trying to file a report because the stuff they took out of the garage was insured. You can't claim the insurance without a police report. So it took me forever to get somebody on the phone. By the time I did, it was dark. And the dispatcher was like, Oh, we can send someone out. And Elvis, I swear I thought about it and I said, You know what? No, I'll call back tomorrow morning when the sun's up. And I had to make that choice. I had to make that choice. And so is Cora gonna get to stride down Main Street again? She did it in South Carolina and what happened? They pulled the rug from underneath her. And so I think the ending of the show has a fidelity to that experience.

KCRW: Something that's really interesting about your work that really plays out in a fascinating way here is: given how much tension and anxiety there is in these tableaus you play out, I get a sense of breathing, of you taking your time, that feels like some ways to me a Southern thing. There's really that time to breathe here, but I actually really feel that the pace is faster.

Jenkins: I think the pace is faster because there's more plot. But again, the same way we approached both the brutal and the romantic things with the same aesthetic, I think we approach the plot and the story with the same aesthetic.  I don't think there's anything different about the way we made the show than the way we made the things before. I mean, I'm happy that the pace feels faster. It's an epic journey. She does cover a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively, both geographically and emotionally. And because so much ground is covered, there should be a pace to it. 

The space you're talking about: I don't think it's about being Southern. As you and I talked about before, when I started studying cinema, it was Wong Kar Wai and Lynn Ramsay, and I think in the works of those filmmakers, the pace is dictated by the story; it's dictated by the character. I think it allows the audience to really see the character and to really see these very minute evolutions that the characters are making because I think that's how real life takes place.

KCRW: I think what you're doing is giving us a chance to catch our footing as Cora is kind of the audience surrogate, who I do think is incredibly empowered. We're aware of that split in her between the head and the heart, which exists in so many characters, too, and how they're going to react, whether they're gonna react emotionally first, or with their heads first. And I feel like that's where this comes from: this idea of really grounding her as an audience surrogate in a way that we've not had from you before.

Jenkins: I agree with that. And it's interesting because we've been talking about "Moonlight" a bit, and I haven't talked about "Moonlight" in relation to the show very much at all. But "Moonlight" has a very deliberate structure, which is: we're building this character, he's a kid, he's a teenager, and then we start off the first section of the last chapter. And now it's like, he's this and he's that. And then once he pulls up at the diner, now we have one of the longest shots in the film, and then he walks all the way to the diner and the doorbell rings. And now time is being revealed in a different way. 

I think the first three episodes of the show [“Underground Railroad”] kind of function the same way. Each one of those episodes, there's a lot of story, introducing a lot of characters. And then once she hits Tennessee, and she encounters Jasper, now here's the lesson, because this character Jasper is almost like this apostle or a prophet. You know that Cora has been fated to spend this time with him. And to a certain degree, again, no spoilers, but I think maybe Jasper's last breath is Cora's first breath, and it's why we cut them the way we do.

Again, you talk about breathing. It's not that it's Southern but now she's learning to breathe again. And slowly as we ramp through the remainder of that episode into the next one. You see her gaining strength, gaining possession of herself. And then once we get to Indiana, now we're back. 

You know, it's funny, I was doing this podcast with Larry Wilmore, who is a really smart cat and he's talking about the difference between plot driven stories and storytelling stories, and he used Spielberg as an example. He's like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is all plot, very little story because Indiana doesn't change over the course of the film. But then you get to "Close Encounters" and Richard Dreyfus: not a lot happens. But he evolves so much that choices he's making at the beginning of that film are totally different than the ones he's making at the end, but not a lot happens between the beginning and the end of that. I think in the show, we start off with the first: plot, plot, plot, plot plot, then you get to that middle section. And now it's just the story of this woman. She knows who she is; she's made this choice. She's in the repercussions, but oh, my God, look at how much she's growing. 

KCRW: What's fascinating about the movies, too, is that I'm not aware of time in them. I always feel like there is a ticking clock in your work, but it's the clock of the investment we make in the protagonists. Is that person going to be able to evolve in real time? What's going on around them? 

Jenkins: It's interesting, we shot the show out of sequence. South Carolina was the first episode, then we filmed Georgia and Mabel, then we did the two Indiana's, then North Carolina, and then we finished up with all the Tennessee work. So for Thuso Mbedu [who plays Cora], that's such a wild bit of calibration. She starts off the show as someone who doesn't want to be seen, and then she wants to close everyone off. 

I have these female friends who joke with me: if a man who looks like Aaron Pierre comes and asks me to go anywhere, there's no way I'm gonna say no. And I go, yes, but she doesn't see anything. She's so bitter and angry, as she should be, justifiably so. Then you see this evolution, whether it's through her experience, mothering and protecting the character, Grace, and then into closing off and then opening herself up, opening her heart to the character Royal. I think you do see this process you've described of a character evolving to the point of self possession. 

KCRW: There is the question that we got in "Beale Street," which is how is she going to react to this world is going on around her, which involves the question of the threat to Black masculinity around her, raising a life that's crawling inside her and what she's going to do with all that. This idea of asking these kinds of questions of Black women in pieces like this still feels like a radical act.

Jenkins: All praise to Colson Whitehead, the two time Pulitzer Prize award winning Colson Whitehead. You know, when I first read this book, the conceit of "The Underground Railroad" grabbed me, yes. But, oh my God, the story of mothering that was told through this character, Mabel in Cora's dislocation, disassociation, disembodiment, because she doesn't have the biography, because she doesn't have the information of what's caused the separation between her and her mother. That was the thing that really just grabbed me about the book, and almost this tribute to Black women and Black mothering, as exhibited through the lives of Mabel and Cora just really grabbed me, and I thought it was something that was very important to nail in the telling of the story. Then you hire these actors, and the actors come in and give body to these characters, and it just went to a place that I couldn't even imagine.

KCRW: You offer these very different takes on that experience of motherhood, but also, at some point, all of them have the anxiety of: what are we going to do about my child? That's really to me an incredible thing to see played out, to see dramatized, in ways that, not just feel, but are incredibly different in each instance.

Jenkins: I'm glad you used the word “dramatize” because these are dramatizations, but I think they're very truth based, probably fact based, but so many of these stories have been lost to the historical record. And yet, I think we can all look in this place or that place, and we'll find a story of one of these women who did the work who, probably, unfortunately, lived the sacrifice. I think it's very important to point that out, that it has allowed folks like you and myself to sit here and have these conversations about works of art that we've created in their image.



Rebecca Mooney