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'Underground Railroad' Director Barry Jenkins Sees Film As An 'Empathy Machine'

Barry Jenkins served as showrunner, executive producer, writer and director to the 10-part Amazon series, <em>The Underground Railroad</em>.
Atsushi Nishijima
Amazon Studios
Barry Jenkins served as showrunner, executive producer, writer and director to the 10-part Amazon series, The Underground Railroad.

For director Barry Jenkins, filming The Underground Railroad has been the most difficult undertaking of his career.

Amazon's new series based is based on Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an enslaved teenage girl who escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation. The series, which was filmed in Georgia, depicts the underground railroad as a literal train that secretly transports people who have escaped enslavement and make stops in different states.

Jenkins says there were times when he wept on set while depicting the brutality of slavery: "It was incredibly difficult, partly because we were standing in places where there was a feeling that ... these atrocities had occurred," he says.

Jenkins directed Moonlight, which won the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture, as well as the 2018 adaptation of James Baldwin's novel,If Beale Street Could Talk. He says working on The Underground Railroad connected him with his own roots in a new way.

"Before making the show, if you ask[ed] me who I was a descendant of, I would have said I'm the descendant of enslaved Africans," he says. "I think now that answer has evolved: I am the descendant of blacksmiths and midwives and herbalists and spiritualists. Making the show ... the thing it brought me was this proximity, this closeness, this reverence of my ancestors."

Interview highlights

On why he became a filmmaker

That first semester of film school was really brutal at Florida State University. I entered the film school and in the first semester I realized I was a bit in over my head. I didn't know you needed a light to expose film. And so technically, I was far behind my peers. I had to question a lot of things. The question was, am I not good at this because I'm Black and I'm poor and I grew up in the projects with a mom addicted to crack cocaine, or do I just not have access to the tools these kids have had? Have I just not been as privileged as these kids have been?

I knew what it felt like to be Black in America. And through my research, reading and watching all these great films, I knew that film was an empathy machine.

And I took a year off — and this was around 9/11 — and I came back and I made a short film. People were saying being Arab or being Muslim in America is the new Black. I knew what it felt like to be Black in America. And through my research, reading and watching all these great films, I knew that film was an empathy machine. I thought, oh, if I can figure out a way to empathize with these people and make a film, maybe there's a way that I can harness my voice.

And so I made a film about this Arab-American couple washing American flags for free, as a sign of their patriotism. I called it My Josephine and I made that thing and it worked. I'm really proud of that short and right away, I realized the first time in my life where these perceived handicaps that I thought I had, I just blasted through them. I disproved those thoughts that I had in the back of my mind about myself. And I thought, "Oh, I can do this for a living? Hell yeah." And I've just been chasing it ever since.

On filming a scene in The Underground Railroad in which an enslaved man is hung in a tree and burned alive

It was incredibly difficult, partly because we were standing in places where there was a feeling that things like this, these atrocities had occurred. We filmed the show entirely in the state of Georgia and the soil, the history of Georgia, is soaked in blood, and that's just historical fact. And so on the set for one, there's no blood, there's no fire. The actor Eli Everett, who did a great job, he's very well taken care of, he's on a harness. He's not actually suspended by his arms. So there's a certain remove that comes into play that allows you to approach the work shot by shot, almost like constructing a house, in a certain way. ...

We filmed it on one day because I didn't want to put anyone through the mental space of creating this image any more than necessary. Over the course of that day, it just became very clear that we were standing in these spaces, that our ancestors stood and they were forced to witness these things that we were not witnessing, even in the remove of creating a piece of art. I think the witnesses ... the people who are forced to watch these things, to me, that was the reverberations of the trauma and it was how one violent act can reverberate through the many. And so just approaching it like that, I felt like there was a way to get through the work. But of course, I'm a human being. ... This was the one time where I walked off my own set. I walked off for about 10 minutes, didn't say anything to anybody. I just walked off and then I got it myself and came back to be strong for the actors, in particular, Eli Everett, who plays that part.

On his depiction of how enslaved people raised children as a collective

It's one of the things I'm proudest of — recreating these images that is maybe a little bit different from the images that have come before; we make sure to put children everywhere. And if there was a choice, it was to live and protect those children, because by 1885 there are men in Congress who were born into slavery, because my ancestors protected those children. And so for me, the show was about recontextualizing them because I believe now making this show, my ancestors are responsible for the greatest act of collective parenting the world has ever seen. ... How was MLK possible without this act of collective parenting? How am I possible without this act of collective parenting?

On the woman who raised him during the years his mother struggled with addiction

I was raised by a woman named Minerva Hall, my grandmother, who I'm pretty sure was no blood relation to me, but was a caretaker for my mom during her very, very rough years. There's actually a character in The Underground Railroad named after her. ... She was awesome. She was the kind of woman who there would be 12 people in a two-bedroom apartment at different periods, because if you needed a shelter, she provided [it]. It's interesting, I don't make these connections as I'm making work, it's just about the characters. But I mean, there's a direct line between the way Minerva took care of me, and the way these kids, these children, who split off from their families, were taken care of by my ancestors.

On why high school football saved his life

I grew up without a father figure. And these coaches, it's funny thinking back on them now, because I think I thought of them as these old dudes who were, like, three generations above me. I realize now many of them were younger than I am right now. And yet they were the men in my life. And they were tough, but they were fair. And I do believe they taught me valuable lessons and they gave me self-esteem. ... I make these art films now, but when I'm on my sets, I'm basically a football coach. I'm emulating these Black men that I grew up with, you know, Coach Smith, Coach Hardwick. Man, Coach Hardwick saved my life. He's the first person to call me a man, and he did it in a way that it wasn't about masculinity or hypermasculinity. It was just he was talking to me — we were having a conversation. And he wanted me to understand that he respected what I was saying. And I think those are very valuable lessons if you're someone who's growing up without a father.

On how he is like a football coach when he's directing

I'm very diligent. I think the best coaches understand that their ego must be checked because they are not the ones performing. I think on a film set, a director can be a tyrant. They can be this person that feels all powerful. When I'm on a set, I sometimes feel powerless, but I give that power to the crew. I give that power to the cast and my goal and my job and my hope, it's just like my coaches, which is to inspire everyone I'm working with to be — this is going to sound so soft headed but — to be the best them that they can be. And I promise you, Terry, as people watch my work, the things that affect them the most, the moments that affect them the most and the ones I have the least to do with, it's where these people are out on the set or in the scene and they're becoming this thing that it's in them to become. And it's what I love the most about what I do.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.