May 10, 2021
By Lisa Keddie
LONDON (Reuters) – “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins switches to the small screen for an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad”, a project the Oscar winner says he feared from the start.
The 41-year-old read a copy of Colson Whitehead’s harrowing tale before its 2016 release, and was enamoured by its young protagonist, Black slave Cora, and her quest for freedom from a Georgia plantation.
Set in the 19th century Deep South, the 10-part series, released on Amazon Prime Video on May 14, is Jenkins’ biggest television project to date, with haunting and harrowing images of slavery brutality.
“Both the scale and scope of the story and the delicate nature of the subject matter, I think for many different reasons it was something to fear,” Jenkins told Reuters in an interview.
“But I think that’s a good thing. As an artist, if you’re not afraid somewhat of what you’re doing, then the thing that you’re creating is not going to help you expand or evolve.”
The story follows Cora, played by South African actress Thuso Mbedu, as she discovers the “Underground Railroad”, a secret network of tracks, and embarks on her journey, travelling from state to state.
“The show is ultimately about survival. It’s about triumph in a certain way, but it’s rooted out of this trauma that is very real and it must be acknowledged,” Jenkins said.
Cora is pursued by slave hunter Ridgeway, played by Joel Edgerton, who wants to make up for never catching her mother when she escaped years before.
“There was a whole lot of preparation that went into Cora, but even going into the production, I knew that … I had a lot of people to lean on,” Mbedu said of her gruelling role, adding that cast and crew made sure to organise events to unwind.
“I’d have situations where sometimes I’d feel the residue of Cora bleeding into my own life. But I was intentional about checking in, self awareness was very key. We also had a guidance counsellor on set who would always check in on me as well, which is something I really appreciated.”
As part of the location scout, Jenkins visited a cotton field in Georgia, a moment he described as “intense”.
“But then it was also quite beautiful because I was there with all these folks who looked like me and we were the descendants of all these people who stood in this field,” he said.
“And the idea that they could imagine us coming back there to recreate their experience is something quite wonderful.”
(Reporting by Lisa Keddie; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)