Barry Jenkins won an Academy Award for directing “Moonlight” and was nominated for “If Beale Street Could Talk.” His latest project is a multi-part adaptation of National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” Washington Post opinions columnist Michele Norris speaks with Jenkins about the series, the lessons of history and the challenge of depicting its darker chapters.


Being present and filming in locations where African Americans were enslaved, Jenkins felt the distance between himself and his ancestors shrink. “I had never been in a cotton field before prepping for this show. It was fascinating to see what cotton actually looks like, to reach down and touch… the branches… It was really fascinating to go to a plantation, to all these different spaces… I’ve been to Krakow, Poland, and didn’t go to Auschwitz, was over there for a film festival, but even being in that space, there’s something you feel. And for whatever reason, because of the way this history is taught in schools, I just wasn’t prepared for how heavy the level of synesthesia that would arise from just physically being in these spaces. And then we’re recreating these images in the spaces… in the state of Georgia, and some of the spaces where these things happened. It was, it was overwhelming at times. I went through a whole range of emotions, but one of those ranges was there was this distance between myself and my ancestors I feel before making this show, and over the process of making it, that distance… just shrank and shrank and shrank and shrank until it sort of felt like it became like this [holds hands tightly together].” (Washington Post Live)
The director said he wanted the series to expand on the complexity of the lives of those who had been enslaved and the sacrifices they endured “The show over the course of its ten episodes seeks to recontextualize, to fill in this very flat depiction of who they were, and recontextualize and repurpose that image to show what they did, who they were, how they lived and how they endured. We think of sacrifice as this thing that’s wrought in death, and I think in this case–if there’s anything I’ve learned about my ancestors it’s this–the sacrifice was in living. And I wanted to really give a three-dimensional depiction of the lives that they lived.” (Washington Post Live)
The director discussed how he carefully deliberated whether and how to adapt Colson Whitehead’s novel into a series. “I was thinking in recreating this era, in recreating these images, you know, what am I going to do to the cast and crew who are tasked with embodying these characters. It was a combination of all those different things, trying to have the moral, the ethical conversation with myself about why I wanted to make this, and then also too, really debating if it was necessary to give voice to this very turbulent time in our nation’s history, even through the magical realist, alternative… history gaze given to us by the brilliant Colson Whitehead.” (Washington Post Live)

Barry Jenkins

Provided by Barry Jenkins.

Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins’ feature film debut, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, was hailed as one of the best films of 2009 by The New York Times and received several Independent Spirit and Gotham Award nominations. In 2019, along with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his second feature the Academy Award and Golden Globe winning Best Picture MOONLIGHT. As well as earning eight Academy Award nominations, ten Broadcast Critics Choice Awards nominations, six Golden Globe nominations and four BAFTA nominations, MOONLIGHT won Best Picture and Director at the Gotham Awards and Best International Film by the British Independent Film Awards. In addition to NYFCC and NBR awarding Jenkins Best Director and LAFCA naming him Best Director and the film Best Picture, Jenkins received a DGA Best Director nomination and won the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay. His third feature, the adaptation of James Baldwin’s IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK went on to receive three Academy Award nominations and won Best Picture at the Independent Spirit Awards. Jenkins also received the Independent Spirit Award for Best Director. Jenkins’ next feature film projects include a follow up to THE LION KING for Walt Disney Studios as well as a biopic of famed choreographer, Alvin Ailey, for Searchlight Pictures.

For television, Jenkins directed an episode in the first season of the Netflix Original Series DEAR WHITE PEOPLE. His next project for television is an adaptation of National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD for Amazon. Jenkins has directed all episodes and written a number of the screenplays. Other upcoming work includes a script based on the life of the first American Female Olympic boxing champ Clarissa “T-Rex” Shields as well as an adaptation of Netflix’s original documentary, VIRUNGA, about the battle to save the Congo’s mountain gorilla population.