When A-list directors make the jump to long-form television, the projects are always eagerly anticipated. But when the man behind Moonlight announces he is taking to the small screen, you need to drop everything and switch on the telly.
Barry Jenkins’ new series The Underground Railroad looks like it’s exceeding even that high expectation.
The director has brought his passion project to life telling the heartbreaking and inspiring story of slaves’ treacherous escape routes out of bondage in the American deep south.
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It’s an incredible adventure – and a shocking eye opener.
Watch a trailer for The Underground Railroad
Set in the years before the civil war, with slavery rife in the deep south, the series features brutal masters whipping, executing and breeding their captured people like cattle.
But there’s also hope, as lead characters Cora and Caesar long to escape. After one cruel incident too many, they make their break for freedom through a network of sympathetic houses and landowners dotted among the south, offering shelter and safe passage for runaways.
In history, the Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual railway, but a network of shelters and supporters. In the series, it’s a real subterranean transit that creates breathtaking moments of action.
Creator Barry Jenkins said it’s a story he’s been desperate to tell since he first picked up a camera and has always loved the book by Colson Whitehead.
“Before making Moonlight, I said there were three things I wanted to do. One was to make a very personal story about where I grew up, that was Moonlight. I wanted to adapt James Baldwin and so, I made If Beale Street Could Talk, and then, the third one was that I wanted to do something related to the American condition of slavery.
“Colson created this book that, for me, provided the perfect way in being that it was very grounded in the actual history. But also, it had this very romantic and fantastical element to it that I thought, was the perfect pairing of my aesthetic and the subject matter.”
The main character, Cora, is played by Thuso Mbedu and Caesar by Aaron Pierre. Supporting cast includes Chase Dillon, Peter Mullan and Joel Edgerton, as well as The Good Place star William Jackson Harper.
Jenkins added: “I fell in love with this book because of Cora. Cora Randall is not a famous person, but I love that this random woman who suffered the unfortunate fate of being enslaved, has gotten to be the bedrock of this huge mythology.”
Jenkins' childhood memories were also a great motivation in making this series. “I remember as a kid hearing about the underground railroad and picturing Black people on trains underground.
“And then, you learn no, it wasn’t actually Black people on trains underground. It was this network of houses and all this other stuff which is impressive and very cool and so amazing and yet, as a kid, it was almost like learning that the tooth fairy didn’t exist or learning that Santa Claus didn’t exist.
"And so, right away, when I first read the novel, I got that feeling again of being a kid growing up in the projects and imagining Black people on trains underground.”
The Underground Railroad is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video
WATCH: The Underground Railroad stars discuss hopes for the series.