May 09, 2021
The Moonlight director on how making his epic TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Underground Railroad compelled him to fully confront the history of slavery, as well as his own damaged childhood
Barry Jenkins: ‘Maybe America has never been great’
Barry Jenkins first heard the history of the Underground Railroad from a teacher when he was six or seven years old. The school lesson described the loose network of safe houses and abolitionists that helped enslaved people in the American south escape to free states in the north in the 19th century. Jenkins as a wide-eyed kid imagined an actual railroad, though, secret steam trains thundering under America, built by black superheroes in the dead of night. It was an image, he recalls, that made “anything feel possible”. “My grandfather was a longshoreman,” he says. “He came home every day, in his hard hat and his tool belt, and his thick boots. And I thought, ‘Oh, yes, people like my granddad, they built this underground railroad!’”
That childhood image returned to Jenkins, now 41, when he read an advance copy of Colson Whitehead’s novel about that history, which builds on that same seductive idea. That was in 2016. Both Jenkins and Whitehead were on the edge of career-defining breakthroughs: Jenkins’s film Moonlight was about to be released (and would go on to win the Oscar for best picture) and Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad was about to be published (going on to receive the National Book Award and the Pulitzer prize). All this was to come, though, when the pair met. “I was familiar with Colson as an author,” Jenkins told me last week on a screen from his home in Los Angeles. “And once I read his book, I knew for sure I absolutely want this. And I’m not that guy. Usually I’ll read something and I go, well, that might make a great film, and then I’ll just leave it. But this one, it’s all hands on deck, we have to get this.”
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