What’s Barry Jenkins Working on Now? Oh, Just Writing and Directing a Series Adaptation of ‘The Underground Railroad’


Now that he made the most talked about — and arguably the best, and, after an infamous mixup, Best Picture-awarded — American film of 2016, Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins is actually turning to television. (“Turning to television” being, of course, a favorite prestigious directorial activity nowadays.) And said turn sounds quite compelling: he’s developing an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award winning 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, for Amazon — and is both writing and directing it.

The New York Times reports that Jenkins’ limited series is being made for Amazon, through Jenkins’ own production company, Pastel, and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

Whitehead’s novel follows a young woman named Cora who escapes slavery on a Georgia plantation, via the Underground Railroad — envisioned by Whitehead as a subterranean train that takes the protagonist on a vertical trip across American space, time, and manifold forms of racialized cruelty as the book suddenly transcends its initial genre; the Guardian called it “a luminous, furious, wildly inventive tale that not only shines a bright light on one of the darkest periods of history, but also opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.” Whitehead, speaking on NPR’s Fresh Air in November of last year, described the conception of the novel:

I was just sort of…getting up from a nap or something and thought…what if the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad?… I think when you’re a kid and you first hear about it in school or whatever, you imagine a literal subway beneath the earth. And then you find out that it’s not a literal subway, and you get a bit upset. And so the book took off from that childhood notion. And that’s a premise, not that much of a story. So I kept thinking about it. And I thought, well, what if every state our hero went through — as he or she ran North — was a different state of American possibility? So Georgia has one sort of take on America and North Carolina — sort of like “Gulliver’s Travels.”… Once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad… it freed me up to play with time a bit more…The technology, culture and speech is from the year 1850. That was my sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang. But it allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850.

Jenkins said in a statement, relating to the scope and narrative boldness of the novel and plans for the series:

Preserving the sweep and grandeur of a story like this requires bold, innovative thinking. In Amazon we’ve found a partner whose reverence for storytelling and freeness of form is wholly in line with our vision.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the project got a “script-to-series” order from Amazon, though the company hasn’t yet announced a release date, nor have they shared how many episodes the limited series will span. As the Los Angeles Times explains, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve signed off on the series, but that if they do, it’ll skip Amazon’s usual pilot process and get a full order.