Barry Jenkins’ limited series The Underground Railroad is available on Amazon Prime on Friday (May 14). It is safe to say that the adaption of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is beautifully traumatic.
While the buzz about the continuum of Black trauma in the form of TV and film has stirred critiques on social media, Jenkins’ response is simple: “I’m not saying anybody has to watch and I’m not saying folks shouldn’t be tired. I think when people say that I hear them,” he tells BET.com in an interview.
The Academy Award-winning director also noted that sticking to the facts of Black American history was at the forefront of filming in the deep south of Savannah, Georgia.
Here are four key takeaways from Jenkins in his own words about his The Underground Railroad series, starring Thuso Mbedu and Aaron Pierre:
ON HANDLING THE VITAL LEGACY OF BLACK AMERICAN HISTORY
“I sought to route the show the same way the book is — a very factual depiction of this time in history. Then as we move on further from that, I try to illuminate some different elements of this condition in an attempt to re-contextualize how we view our ancestors and how we view this history. When we hear that there’s a show or film or any piece of art about this time and the conditions in American slavery, we already assume we know everything about the imagery. We can anticipate what that imagery will be like. I wanted to push through that, and hopefully, build some new elements to these images.”
ON TURNING SUCH A TRAUMATIC TIME IN BLACK HISTORY INTO SOMETHING SO PICTURESQUE
“To be honest, I think the fact that these things happened, amidst such resplendent natural beauty, and to the natural beauty of my ancestors, it makes these acts even more horrific. I wasn't trying to amp up the horror of anything we were depicting, but to me just thinking of it artistically, the combination of the beauty and the horror, it was a fact of the environment, and I thought it was a very damning fact at that. So I embraced it.”
ON FILMING IN THE SAVANNAH REGION OF GEORGIA
“I wanted to ground it in place. We focused entirely on a location [Georgia] where many of these things did happen. I never imagined that we would film the entire thing there. [But] I think doing that, it really hit home, the gravity of what we were doing, because every single frame of the show was filmed in a place where the events were depicting that were dramatizing what happened, and there was no way to escape that. And because of that, there was no way to shirk responsibility to get it right.”
ON BLACK AUDIENCES’ RELUCTANCE TO SEE TRAUMA ON SCREEN
“I spent a year and a half of my life in Georgia, [and] every day I was reminded that there was blood in the soil. I filmed on Stone Mountain and there is a carving of Confederate generals, larger than life. So we have this visual reminder of the boot that was once upon our neck. We go, ‘maybe that's too traumatic, I don't know that we need [it].’ Now, I don't think anybody has to watch the show, I draw a line there. But when people say the show shouldn't exist, these images shouldn't exist. I just [point] to the mountain [where] they are Confederate generals carved into the side. And I go, ‘Well, I'm not so sure about that.’”
ON CRITICISM OF BLACK STORIES THAT DEPICT TRAUMA
“Every individual artist has the prerogative to create whatever they think is meaningful to create. Also. viewers also have the prerogative not to watch. I don't want to compare genocides, but the genocide that has been mostly covered, much more covered than the genocide of [Black] folks is the Holocaust, there have been hundreds of movies. They were making films about the Holocaust, while it was happening. Reparations were granted to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust in 1952. By 1952, there had already been 15 feature films made on the subject.
So I do think there is something about the visibility, the accounting, the acknowledgment of these things that artists have the prerogative to speak towards.
Now I will say this, when the trailer for the show dropped [online], one of the common themes I saw was I don't want any more images of slaves, I want positive imagery. And because of that, it's assumed that any image associated with my ancestors is inherently negative and we should participate in the erasure of our ancestors because this negativity we associate with them makes the pain of looking at them so much that we wish we would rather just not see them.
I can't accept that, I think what's necessary is to create art that helps us recontextualize how we view them.”
Watch the trailer for The Underground Railroad below: