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PROGRAM NOTE

CURATORS' CHOICE 2021:

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

CHAPTERS 1–5: December 31, 2021, 12:30 P.M.

CHAPTERS 6–10: January 1, 2022, 12:30 P.M.

United States. 2021, 305 mins. DCP. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Cinematography by James Laxton. Music by Nicholas Britell. Production design by Mark Friedberg. With Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon, Joel Edgerton, Fred Hechinger, Peter Mullan, Mychal-Bella Bowman, Sheila Atim.

Review by Robert Daniels, RogerEbert.com, May 14, 2021

After directing the meditative Medicine for Melancholy, the Best Picture–winning Moonlight, and the sumptuous If Beale Street Could Talk—Barry Jenkins could have opted for less demanding material. Very few would have blamed him. In a climate weary of trauma, he instead chose the riskiest bet—a slave narrative. “The Underground Railroad,” adapted by Jenkins from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel, is a ten-hour fantastical epic following Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a Georgia slave, who with Caesar (Aaron Pierre), escapes from their antebellum plantation toward freedom by way of real locomotives, in real tunnels, with real stationhouses.

Cora’s ten-episode journey finds her evading capture from ruthless slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his young Black protégé Homer (Chase Dillon) by traversing glittering states, apocalyptic landscapes, and Edenic countrysides. All the while she wrestles with love and loss, and the deep-seeded anger she holds against her mother for abandoning her all those years ago. These humanistic themes are why The Underground Railroad succeeds where other slave narratives have failed: The show addresses these characters as living, breathing people first. Not merely as magnets for dehumanization and brutalization.

In addition to the miniseries, through Vimeo, Jenkins shared a 50-minute prologue entitled The Gaze. The short non-narrative film affectingly presents a series of tableaux wherein individual slaves—portrayed by the show’s vast number of talented extras—unflinchingly stand in fields with resoluteness and sometimes joy. It is the Black gaze captured to startling effect. The two projects also reteam the Moonlight director with longtime collaborators composer Nicholas Brittell and cinematographer James Laxton for the trio’s most enlivening work yet.

Jenkins spoke with RogerEbert.com about weaponizing trauma, Black America’s Manifest Destiny and the remembrance of ancestors.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

As an intro to The Gaze, you wrote about the moments where you were captured by a spirit and you decided to record these portraitures. What other feelings swirled around you as you were making The Underground Railroad?

So many feelings, especially because we made the show entirely in the state of Georgia. It was hard to not to either remember or not visualize the actual history that we were recreating. The things that actually had to have happened in the space as we were working: the voices, the bodies of the people who once walked there.

Right after Moonlight I went to the Yucatan in Mexico. I went to this place called Uxmal, where a few Mayan structures still stand. And of course the original inhabitants just vanished, almost lost to time. Walking those spaces, I just kept imagining what it must have been like when this place was full. When it was whole. I had the same feeling while making the show. The difference was I had a camera and I had these people embodying what I was now visualizing. That's where this idea to capture it came from. And it's expensive because every time we're capturing one of those portraitures, we're not shooting a scene for the show. So there's this balance you have to strike: is this moment worth capturing? And I think at every step of the way it was.

Do you think the energies of our ancestors can still be felt when we're in certain spaces?

I have to. I don't have an academic background. I'm not a fine artist. I'm just working purely off emotion and feeling. In those shots: what you're seeing is myself, the actors, the crew, especially James [Laxton] responding to this feeling. People have been talking to me about this moment following the Big Anthony (Elijah Everett) scene where I walked off set. In that moment there was no blood. No fire. The actor’s on a harness. But it was knowing these things happened. That was the thing that became overwhelming. That's why I walked off set.

Thinking back toward Joel Edgerton's monologues: More than a few directors would have relied on flashbacks in the scenes where he explains Caesar and Lovey’s fate (Zsane Jhe). But your lens stays in the scene with these two actors. What was the thought process behind staging the monologues, especially with regards to navigating what trauma was and wasn’t worth showing?

If I could, I would've told it all and not shown. There are moments where Joel as Ridgeway is telling these stories and what we're showing is their effect on the person who’s hearing them. There's this idea of witnessing throughout the show that is very important. We have this character Hezekiah (Jeremiah Eric Westbrook). He’s the kid in “Georgia,” and he's always there as a witness when these things happen. He also shows up in “Indiana - Autumn.” As Cora first walks into the atrium, we do this steady-cam shot where Hezekiah is now watching her.

And so this idea of witnessing was very important because this show begins with a character who's given up all hope; who doesn't believe in herself; who doesn't believe in the world. It was imperative to show the Big Anthony scene because as a story format, this is the catalyst that shakes her out of this malaise. It makes her decide to leave. And I felt like that catalyst was so extreme it demanded to be shown. It's why we come off of Big Anthony and pan and pan until we land on the two faces who are now motivated to run.

To show anywhere else is unnecessary. Because what’s more powerful than watching this woman—When there's no cut. No artifice. No fake tears—ingest this story? You can see how Ridgeway weaponizes trauma. That's way more powerful than us cutting to Lovey on a spike. You’ve already witnessed how far this can go. So it was always a delicate balance of negotiating what we show and what we tell. Most of the showing is done, unfortunately, in episode one. But man, I tried so hard. Because initially I thought maybe “Georgia” could be the fifth episode and we could do a big flashback to the beginning. But I mean, that's just not the truth.

Read entire interview at RogerEbert.com.

 

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