Barry Jenkins Explains Why ‘The Underground Railroad’ “Isn’t A Show About Slavery”

When you see the title of Barry Jenkins’ new series, “The Underground Railroad,” and then combine it with the premise about a literal railroad system used to help Black people escape slavery, you may immediately assume you know the story that the filmmaker is trying to tell. Clearly, this is a story about slavery and what it was like experiencing that disgusting part of American history. Well, you’d be wrong, according to Jenkins.

Speaking in an interview with Shadow and Act, Jenkins went into detail about his goal with “The Underground Railroad,” and why the story he aims to tell over the 10-episode series isn’t really about slavery at all. It’s about the characters.

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“This show isn’t a show about slavery. It’s a show about the character Cora,” he explained. “I think when we talk about slavery, in a way, we almost dehumanize the folks who were enslaved against their will. We almost rob them of their personhood. We assume the condition of being enslaved was the totality of their experience and the totality of their humanity.”

One way that Jenkins wants to expand the discussion of that era beyond the slavery aspect is to focus on who these characters are. Not as slaves. But as humans with real goals, skills, and aspirations.

“There is a lot of character work around what these characters did,” he said. “You know, some of them were people who planted [and] nursed vegetation [and] gardens for their own sustenance. Some of them were blacksmiths, who built things with their hands. Those things have nothing to do with the condition of being enslaved. Those people have the same vocations the same way you and I [have].”

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So, even though “The Underground Railroad” is a story that is set during the era of slavery and follows the story of people trying to escape that life, the series has much higher hopes and goals. And one of the ways that Jenkins is able to do that is by extending the story well past the limitations of a feature film.

He explained that when he approached the author of the novel the series is based on, Colson Whitehead, Jenkins told him that the only way that he would adapt the story would be if he was allowed to expand it over the course of a series and not a typical feature film length.

“I want to have the opportunity to go past the assumptions of the conditions of an enslaved person and past the reductions of humanity of an enslaved person,” he said. “I think to do that, I need 10 hours. I need 10 episodes. I can’t do it in two hours. And I’m glad he said, ‘I agree.'”

It’s still unclear when “The Underground Railroad” will arrive on Amazon Prime Video, but this is easily one of our most anticipated projects of 2021.