Arts & Culture

Director Barry Jenkins adapts Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for Amazon Prime

14 May 2021

Barry Jenkins is lauded in the film industry, shooting to international acclaim after making the LGBT drama Moonlight. He returned two years later with his colourful adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beal Street Could Talk. Both won Oscars and told poignant Black stories with a picturesque lens and a synaesthetic style.

This year Jenkins will be the latest auteur to branch into television, looking at American slavery in The Underground Railroad as a limited series for Amazon Prime.

What’s the Underground Railroad story?

Based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad examines an alternate history set across the United States in the 19th century. Abolitionists are sneaking enslave people out of the South via a secret network of ‘stations’ and ‘safe houses’, labelled the ‘underground railroad’. Whitehead’s world literalises the metaphor, imagining an actual railway built underneath Southern soil – complete with engineers and conductors.

The story follows the enslaved Cora, who’s stuck on a plantation in Georgia. Another enslaved person is Caesar, who tells her he’s leaving for the railroad. She escapes too, and discovers a way of living she didn’t think was possible. But she’s not completely off the hook, as the bounty hunter Ridgeway is hired to bring her back.

In an interview with IndieWire, Jenkins claimed The Underground Railroad is the ‘toughest thing I’ve ever done’. It’s unsurprising, considering the subject-matter, 11 episodes, and 116 days of production. Filming had to cease three days before wrapping because of Covid. In the same interview, Jenkins described the experience as so emotionally taxing that he had to leave the set – as advised by the film’s guidance counsellor.

Thuso Mbedu will be playing Cora. Despite being new to American TV, Mbedu is well-known in South Africa – even earning an International Emmy for her role in the drama series Is’thunzi. London actor Aaron Pierre (Britannia, Krypton) stars alongside Mbedu as Caesar.

The entire series will be available on Amazon Prime from Friday 14 May.

Header Image: Amazon Prime Video

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