Jenkins is speaking via Zoom from the Los Angeles home he recently moved into with fellow filmmaker Lulu Wang, in front of a blue-splashed artwork they commissioned for their dining room. He’s talking about “The Underground Railroad,” the 10-part series, starting Friday on Amazon Prime, that he adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel. The book centers on an enslaved girl named Cora (Thuso Mbedu) who escapes a Georgia plantation in search of her mother, with whom she is furious for leaving without her years earlier.
Cora embarks on a harrowing journey by way of the titular conveyance — a literal train system that carries her through a 19th-century America that both reflects the antebellum period and is also strangely fantastical, from the sight of a skyscraper suddenly popping up in a small South Carolina town to modern-looking stations. As Cora makes her way north, she’s pursued by a Javert-like slave catcher named Ridgeway, played by Joel Edgerton.
When fans of “The Underground Railroad” first heard of Jenkins’s plans to adapt, many readers’ imaginations understandably went to the story’s most speculative, magical realist elements. How, they wondered, would Jenkins visualize Whitehead’s most arresting anachronisms and fantastical visions?
For the most part, he didn’t. If anything, Jenkins’s version of “The Underground Railroad” is most startling for its implacable realism.
“Colson and I actually talked about this right at the beginning,” Jenkins explains. “He said, ‘You know, there’s a version of this where it’s all leather and steampunk and I don’t think we want to do that.’ And I was like, ‘No. We don’t want to do that.’ ”
Invoking the corroded, retro-futuristic design of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s steampunk classic “The City of Lost Children,” he expands on the point. “I said to my production designer, ‘I don’t want CGI trains, I don’t want CGI tunnels. The trains have to be real, the tunnels have to be real.’ ”
Indeed, Jenkins was so committed to photorealistic style in “The Underground Railroad” that he wrote an entire new chapter for the series, which turned out to be too expensive to film. He and co-writer Nathan Parker came up with “Genesis,” the story of Black miners who are buried after a methane explosion; when the mine’s owner decides against rescuing them to recoup their life insurance policies, “the men start digging. . . . And when they come aboveground, they’re on the other side of the Mason-Dixon [line]. And rather than stay aboveground, they go back down. And that’s how the underground railroad begins. . . . It’s not about steampunk. People aren’t going to levitate. We’re going to build myth out of rock and bone.”
Jenkins’s interpretation of “The Underground Railroad” winds up underscoring one of Whitehead’s more astute themes: In his book, the dystopian world Cora encounters is the ideal vehicle for capturing the most perverse contours of slavery, and the diseased imaginations it took to perpetuate and preserve them. Jenkins subtly flips the script, creating a world where the reality is the dystopia — no artifice or time-warp conceits necessary. As the critic Ashley Clark observed regarding Steve McQueen’s 2013 drama “12 Years a Slave” — about Solomon Northup, a free man who was abducted and sold into slavery — the story plays “like something out of ‘The Twilight Zone’: a bona fide narrative of erasure, only marginally more explicable to the audience than it is to the victim.” McQueen himself said he always approached Northup’s story as science fiction: “He’s going to land where there’s a book called the Bible, which everyone interprets in a different way, there are people who are slaves and people who aren’t.”
“The Underground Railroad” can be excruciating to watch. Viewers expecting the lyricism and poetic beauty of Jenkins’s previous films — “Medicine for Melancholy,” “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” — might be taken aback at his willingness to present graphic violence with such uncompromising detail, in long unbroken sequences. That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of romance, joy and exquisite beauty in “The Underground Railroad”; it means that Jenkins is deploying them differently than he has before.
In an early scene, an enslaved laborer named Big Anthony (Elijah Everett) is hanged and set on fire after trying to escape, as a cautionary example to the plantation’s Black inhabitants but also as a form of ghastly entertainment. The execution is staged amid a genteel garden party attended by gracefully attired White Southerners, at sunset, with pink light glinting through romantic swaths of Spanish moss.
“That’s the courtyard of an actual plantation house. These things happened in that space,” Jenkins says. “Who am I to remove that beauty from this act? To me, the presence of it speaks even more to the horrors, the brutality. Because in the presence of so much natural beauty, in the presence of the beauty of my ancestors, these people still made the choice to brutalize, to subjugate, to demean, to degrade.”
Still, the Big Anthony sequence is sure to be controversial, as will several that follow, in which Black bodies are abused, starved, exploited and massacred. It’s a relentless cycle, in which Cora manages to find moments of safety and tenderness, only to have them snatched away.
Jenkins is well aware that “The Underground Railroad” arrives at a time when the ethics of representing Black trauma on screen are especially fraught. He wrapped filming in March 2020, and was editing the series when George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. In the ensuing months, a long-standing debate — about depictions of Black pain and their dissemination as pop entertainment and a political call-to-arms — has been reignited, regarding everything from the Amazon Prime series “Them” to “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”
Few will argue that Jenkins isn’t pushing visual language to its limits in “The Underground Railroad.” But he insists that he never considered softening the series’s most difficult scenes. “If anything, [the past year] reaffirmed my resolve in that what we were doing was the right thing to do. I always have this moral-ethical debate within myself: Are these images needed, are they necessary? And what impact will they have, good or bad?” In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Jenkins recalls, he initially wished he could rewrite the series. “And then, as we were editing the show, it was very clear that so much of what we were dealing with was already in communion with what was happening in the streets. Because these systems have been in place for so long, and they’ve gone on unchecked. If anything, they’ve just metastasized.”
Still, there will be viewers who will see the most extreme brutality in “The Underground Railroad” as too much to take. In some ways, this is the unavoidable slippage between the private act of reading, in which the audience draws upon their own moral imagination, and the inherently spectacle-izing medium of film. Jenkins understands the impulse to turn away: “This is an elective choice,” he says. “If you don’t want to watch these images, you don’t have to.”
But he also perceives the most confrontational passages of “The Underground Railroad” as creating a foundational aesthetic grammar — one that helps correct generations of sanitized moonlight-and-magnolias myths that American cinema was built on, and from which more oblique, less literalistic storytelling forms may one day emerge. For now, he insists, we need to see and sit with the most sordid realities of slavery straight-on, no filter. “What is the converse?” he asks. “To not acknowledge it at all? To participate in the erasure of it, to deny?”
After the Holocaust, many survivors never spoke of the suffering and death they witnessed, in an effort to protect their children and grandchildren — and, no doubt, to preserve their own psyches. In similar ways, a great generational silence has engulfed the realities of slavery, which has become conveniently compartmentalized but not fully understood in terms of the breadth of its reach and the depth of its depravities. It has also allowed myths to take the place of truth, as Cora experiences firsthand after her mother disappears.
“If we don’t speak into that silence, we’ll just continue to coast and skate, and this idea of American exceptionalism will continue to go unpunctured,” Jenkins says. “And I think that’s sad because, as opposed to making this country worse, shattering the myth will only make this country better.”