Barry Jenkins and 'Underground Railroad' Stars on Significance of Show's Literal Railroad

Jennifer Maas

Barry Jenkins makes his TV debut Friday with the launch of Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad,” his adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel of the same name about 19th century slaves who use the Underground Railroad in their pursuit of freedom from a Georgia plantation. And as it is in the historical fiction novel, a network of secret routes and safe houses that were used to help slaves escape to freedom is made into an actual, literal, incredibly fantastical railroad on the limited series.

For “If Beale Street Could Talk” director Jenkins, this track-and-train interpretation of the historical system harkens back to his initial reaction to the concept as a child.

“I attempted to adapt [Whitehead’s] first novel, ‘The Intuitionist,’ which is about elevator inspectors – but it creates this whole mystical, almost like Jedi kind of world out of elevator inspectors and an official stand-in for New York,” the “Moonlight” filmmaker told TheWrap. “I just thought he was just a really brilliant writer. And as a child, when I first heard the words Underground Railroad, I saw Black people on trains, underground. I just, I believed it was real. There was something very powerful about that. And so when I first heard that Colson had written a book titled ‘The Underground Railroad,’ I knew there was going to be something about the conceit of it that was unexpected. And then when I read it, those suspicions were confirmed. I thought, ‘Oh, here goes that feeling again. I have to find a way to adapt this book.’”

While the power of the literal Underground Railroad is a feeling shared by conductor Jenkins and his stars, each of the leading cast members has their own personal understanding of its significance, based on how it impacts their characters.

“What I really appreciate about the fantastical take on it is that it encouraged you to see and experience the story in a different way to what we’re used to, and when it comes to the story of the enslaved Black body,” Thuso Mbedu, who plays runaway slave Cora, told TheWrap. “And I think it allowed for the way that Barry shot it, where it feels so beautiful, but umbrellaing the brutality that came with the context, or the within the circumstance, in which the story is set. Seeing the literal underground railroad that people can confidently say wasn’t a thing encourages one to think beyond what they think they know because it makes you think. And it’s something that one of the characters says, Caesar asks Fletcher, ‘Who built all of this?’ and then Fletcher says, ‘Who built anything in this country?’ So it makes you think about that. Even in their journey of creating their own freedom, the Black body had to endure a whole lot of blood, pain, sweat and tears and a whole lot of effort went into it.”

Cora escapes her prison on a Georgia plantation with Caesar (played by Aaron Pierre) a slave who came from Virginia and knows how to read and write and what a better — but not perfect — world looks like, and encourages Cora to leave with him in the first place.

“What that fantasy element of the literal railroad does, I think it’s a really beautiful idea and concept and a really powerful one,” Pierre said. “And I think, you know, this series already has ample urgency. But I think that the fact that they need to board trains, adds to that urgency, adds a different layer of urgency to the story.”

“Good Place” alum William Jackson Harper took on the role of born-free Black man and Underground Railroad conductor Royal, a change of pace for the comedic actor.

“There is something about him that is quiet and confident and it comes from a place of being able to just live by your own code and his role as a conductor, which is something that in that world, was not not afforded to Black people in the South and, honestly, pretty much anywhere,” Harper said. “But I think what him and his role in the railroad represents are possibilities of what life as a free person is like. And the hope for that future.”

For Joel Edgerton, who plays the part of slave catcher Ridgeway, who is obsessed with bringing Cora and Caesar back to their owner, he focuses in particular on how the Underground Railroad becomes larger and more intricate the further the escaped slaves get on their journey.

“The Underground Railroad made real in Colson’s book is, in my mind, like a rendering of a moving towards power,” Edgerton said. “And through the show, we see these underground railroad in physical form start to become bigger, better designed, bigger infrastructure. And there’s something symbolic about that metaphor becoming a kind of a symbolism, a symbol for power and growth and a moving towards something larger. And I thought that that aspect, along with the fact that Cora gets to experience things other than pain through the show, she gets certain episodes which are all about the abundance of her experiencing love and letting go and trusting again and having romance and finding joy, which becomes special. So there were things that I got to discover by reading the book and various expansions in the screenplay that opened up avenues that weren’t just about that heaviness, which I was happy to know and happy to be a part of.”

“The Underground Railroad” launches Friday on Amazon Prime Video.

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