'Underground Railroad' Director Barry Jenkins Sees Film As An 'Empathy Machine'
Director Barry Jenkin's new series is based on Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an enslaved teenage girl who escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation. He says it was the most difficult undertakings of his career.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Barry Jenkins, directed the film "Moonlight," which won the 2017 Oscar for Best Film. He also directed the 2018 adaptation of James Baldwin's novel, "If Beale Street Could Talk." Now he's co-adapted and he's directed the new 10-part series "The Underground Railroad," which will be streaming on Amazon starting Friday. The series is based on the 2016 novel by Colson Whitehead, which won a Pulitzer Prize, was an Oprah book club selection and was excerpted in a special stand-alone section of The New York Times. It's a reimagining of slave times and the Underground Railroad.
The main characters in the story are Cora, an enslaved, teenaged girl who escapes a brutal Georgia plantation, and Ridgeway, the slave catcher who pursues her. Cora escapes through the Underground Railroad, which, in the novel and the TV series, is literally an underground train that secretly transports people who have escaped enslavement and makes stops in different states. White people in each state have devised a system for dealing with former enslaved people. North Carolina has simply banned Black people. But even in South Carolina, where white people appear to be helping Black people succeed, the motives are sinister. Barry Jenkins spent four years making "The Underground Railroad" and says it's the most difficult undertaking of his career. He says there were times he wept on set while depicting slavery, devoured by the barbarity of that truth.
Barry Jenkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you back on the show. Congratulations on this enormous undertaking. You know, I interviewed Colson Whitehead when the book "The Underground Railroad" came out. And he told me that he had been reluctant to immerse himself in the history of slavery just because it's so painful. And I was wondering if you felt that way, too, when you decided to undertake the project, if there was a bit of a reluctance, knowing what you'd have to put yourself through.
BARRY JENKINS: Thank you for having me, Terry. It's a pleasure to be back. I felt the same reluctance but, I think, for different reasons. I didn't feel reluctance because of the need to immerse myself in the subject matter. When you got out to make a film, you're making a film with a group of people. So you're not alone. I can't imagine what it was like for Colson to have to go deep into this world by himself. So it wasn't a reluctance of immersing myself in the world. It was about the responsibility, the moral and ethical responsibility, of taking those images from the page and translating them to the screen for other people to witness. That was where the hesitancy and the reluctance lied.
GROSS: Yeah. Can we just address that head on for a second?
GROSS: So in the first episode, there's a really brutal scene on the plantation. And a man who has escaped the plantation is hunted down by a slave catcher and returned to the plantation to set an example of what happens if you dare run away. The very sadistic plantation owner throws a lunch for guests. And as they eat and drink out on the lawn, the man is whipped. He's hung by his arms and then set on fire and burned alive while all the enslaved people have to watch. And so this is something that you had to put the actors through and that you had to direct them in and witness. What was it like to shoot that scene for you and for the people in the scene who had to enact it?
JENKINS: It was incredibly difficult, you know, partly because we were standing in places where it was - there was a feeling that things like this, these atrocities, had occurred. We filmed the show entirely in the state of Georgia. And the soil, the history of Georgia, is soaked in blood. And that's just historical fact. And so on the set, for one, you know, there's no blood. There's no fire. The actor, Eli Everett, who did a great job, you know, he's very well taken care of. He's on a harness. He's not actually suspended by his arms. So there's a certain remove that comes into play that allows you to approach the work shot by shot, almost like constructing a house in a certain way.
But, of course, over the course of a day - we filmed it on one day because I didn't want to put anyone through the mental space of creating this image any more than necessary. Over the course of that day, it just became very clear that we were standing in these spaces that our ancestors had stood and that they were forced to witness these things that we were now witnessing even in the remove of creating a piece of art. I think the witness, as you mentioned, the people who were forced to watch these things, to me, that was the reverberations of the trauma. And it was how one violent act can reverberate through the many. And so just approaching it like that, I felt like there was a way to get through the work. But, of course, I'm a human being. And as you alluded to in your comment, this was the one time where I walked off my own set. And I walked off for about 10 minutes, didn't say anything to anybody. I just walked off. And then I gathered myself and came back to be strong for the actors, in particular Eli Everett, who plays that part.
GROSS: I want to read you something that Colson Whitehead told me and get your reaction to this. And he was talking about how he couldn't watch all of the film "12 Years A Slave." It was just too much. And so here's what he said. He said, while I was able - in other words, while he was writing "The Underground Railroad" - he said, while I was able to put all the stuff on the page, seeing the movie "12 Years A Slave" made me really upset. And I could only get through half of it. It was one thing to put my characters through the reality of slavery and something different to see actual humans, actors, go through some of the things I was writing about. And it was too much. It became too close, seeing children ripped from their parents and sold off and seeing the auction scenes and the things I'd put on the page enacted by actors. I had to stop the movie, "12 Years A Slave." And I still haven't finished it because seeing a real human face was too much. And that's very related to what we're talking about. So I'm just really interested in hearing your reaction to that.
JENKINS: Yeah. I completely understand where Colson's coming from. And I would understand where anyone who made that statement would come from, especially Black people. However, for me - and it's funny you mentioned "12 Years A Slave." I have a very proximal relationship with the film. I presided over the world premiere, the first screening of that film. And I...
GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that (laughter).
JENKINS: Yeah, at the Telluride Film Festival and conducted the first Q&A for it. So I'm very familiar with that work. I think, for me, what it amounts to is this idea. There's a power in images. There's a power in images. There's also a power in language. And my medium is visual language. And for the last four years, with the four years that I've made this show, the slogan - and I filmed the show in the state of Georgia. Many red hats down there. And the slogan you would always hear is make America great again. And to me, there was a blind spot in this idea of the America that once was great or this place deep in the historical past where America was great. And I think we only feed into the erasure of the actual history of America and the actual history of my ancestors by deciding that we would rather not see their images.
I'm active on social media. And when the first trailer for this show released and people saw the images, as Colson is referring to there, there was a comment - because I feel like it's important to listen. And it's important as an artist to be interrogated by the people you're creating work for. There was a comment that said, oh, I don't want to see any images of slaves. I want to see positive imagery. And I think inherent in that is the direct association that any images of my ancestors are inherently negative. And I think we have to - or, at least, I have to - I can't speak in we. I felt - I feel a responsibility to recontextualize the power of those images by speaking forthrightly to them, but then pushing past them. And I'll say, in the sequence with Big Anthony, typically, in a sequence like this, the character is just responding to the acute trauma. But we felt it was very important to give him voice. And so he says three very important things in that sequence. He says to the other enslaved people forced to witness, no more masters, no more slaves, and then to his brutalizer, he says, God damn you, God damns you. And I think that's where, even in recreating this image, in some way, we're unearthing another aspect of it, or at least I hope so.
GROSS: You know, you mention Make America Great Again and how that you frequently heard that slogan in Georgia while you were filming "The Underground Railroad." And, you know, this was also a period - because you shot this over four years, this was also the period when in some places Confederate statues were coming down, Confederate flags were coming down. But as we saw on January 6, during that insurrection, there were large Confederate flags there. We all have images in our mind of those Confederate flags. And so, like, that has not gone away, even though the official Confederate flags hung in some states and cities have been taken down. So I guess that's what you're talking about, too, in terms of, you know, how some of that is still so present.
JENKINS: It is to a certain degree. And, again, I don't want to put Make America Great Again just on the state of Georgia. I mean, it was worldwide, undoubtedly. But I think you're right. The stuff hasn't gone away, but we also can't allow it to go unchecked. You mentioned the Confederate flag. I just find - and especially working on this show for the last four years and being obsessed with it - there are more monuments and streets named after the insurrectionist who threatened this country than my ancestors. We had a huge fight about placing one of the greatest Americans, Harriet Tubman, on the $20 bill. And yet I would go to set every day and see images of Confederate generals etched on the side of a mountain. These things are just completely incongruous. They make no sense. But I'm talking about image as this thing is carved into the side of a mountain. And I think my tool is language. And I have to carve images in my own image or in the image of my ancestors.
GROSS: You're talking about Stone Mountain?
JENKINS: Yes, I am, which if you've seen the whole show, Terry, it's not a spoiler, but the North Carolina episode was filmed on Stone Mountain. And - I don't know. I think it's a bit petty, but I'm very proud that they got to blow a little piece of it up in the making of that episode.
GROSS: (Laughter) Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barry Jenkins. He directed the 10-episode series "The Underground Railroad," which is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. The series starts streaming on Amazon Friday. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Barry Jenkins, who directed the 10-part series "The Underground Railroad," which starts streaming on Amazon Friday. It's adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. Barry Jenkins also directed the films "Moonlight" and "If Beale Street Could Talk."
Do you know anything about your own ancestors and their experiences of enslavement? Are there any stories that were passed on to the family or any, like, documents or artifacts that remain?
JENKINS: You know, I do and I don't. I don't know anything - any actualized information. I know, to be honest, like, nothing. I can barely tell you who my grandfather or my great-grandfather were. So that's the literal answer. But I think figuratively, through working on this project, I feel like I know them very well, and I mean very well, both through the research process of making this show and then being there in Georgia.
Our background actors, which was filled with advisers - I mean, we hear all about these civil war reenactors, these men, primarily white men, who preserve all these muskets, and they go to these forts and they reenact these battle scenes. But there are Black people in the American South who do the same thing honoring the legacy of my ancestors. But oh, my God, Terry, making this show - my production designer, Mark Friedberg and I - I said to him, I don't want CGI trains. I don't want CGI tunnels and also the only thing that we've left standing because we won't acknowledge this history are the plantation houses, but the spaces where my ancestors lived, those things have all wasted away. So we rebuilt the entire slave quarters on a plantation, built it from scratch, planted cotton, planted sugarcane, built shacks, the whole deal. And these advisers came down, and they trained our background actors in how to perform as my ancestors.
And, you know, before making this show, if you had asked me who I was a descendant of, I would have said I'm the descendant of enslaved Africans and I have no problem with that. That's a fact of my existence. I think now that answer has evolved. And I am the descendant of blacksmiths and midwives and herbalists and spiritualists. I mean, making this show, no matter what happens with it, I don't know who's going to watch it or for how long they'll stick with it. But the thing it brought me was this proximity, this closeness, this reverence of my ancestors. So in that way, I would say, yes, I know them very well.
GROSS: And how has that, if at all, helped you see your own life differently?
JENKINS: It's interesting. In preproduction for this show, I was standing in a cotton field, I mean, a massive cotton field. And I got really sad and really angry, and I debated the efficacy of even making this show, of instead taking the little savings I had buying the field and just burning it to the ground. And then I realized that there were people who look like me that had stood in this very field, and they could never have imagined that I would one day stand in the same field and create images to honor them. And then I realized they must have. I realized they must have because there's no way they could have endured. There's no way they could have chosen to live without the possibility that they would be beget children who begat children who begat children who win Oscars and make shows in their honor. And so for me, it's made me very proud, not that I wasn't before, but I mentioned the Twitter user before who said, you know, I don't want to see any images of slaves. I want positive imagery. I now associate nothing with any images of my ancestors after going through this process. I mean, the strength of these people was absolutely amazing, Terry. And I think if there's one thing that's a goal of mine in making this show is to recontextualize how we view my ancestors. You know, this show for me is about this character, Cora Randall. It's not about her trying to vanquish slavery. It's about her trying to reconcile this hole in her heart that she feels by this sense of abandonment from her mother. I felt the same thing with my mother because for the first 25 years of my life, I didn't understand why she didn't take care of me. I didn't understand why I was estranged from her. And so Cora goes on this journey, and we've done certain things to the show - we've created this journey where Cora understands the sacrifice a mother has to make.
GROSS: Can I just stop for a second and say that Cora's mother had abandoned her in the sense that she fled enslavement and left Cora on the plantation? And Cora doesn't understand, how could my mother have tried to flee to freedom but leave me behind like that?
JENKINS: Exactly. And I felt the exact same way. You know, as a child, you only know what you know. So I'm looking at this book and it's all about parenting. And I'm doing all this research. And then - and I hate to say this, but Kanye West goes onto TMZ and says slavery was a choice. And I'm trying to unpack - I'm so angry. I'm in preproduction on the show when this happens. And I'm trying to unpack why he says this. And I remember as a kid you would say, oh, if I was a slave, I would've ran or if I was a slave, I would have done this or I'd have done that. I thought, oh, is that where he's coming from with this idea of this choice? And then I realized it was a very militaristic operation. And we don't even get into it as well as we could because we only spend an episode and a half on this plantation. But through communication and weaponry to one of the choices was everyone could have taken up arms and rebelled and everyone would have been slaughtered. And yet all those children, Terry, would have been left behind.
And it's interesting because, you know, talking about sacrifice in the media a lot lately, often heinously as it related to George Floyd - so I'm going to use the word sacrifice here, but I hope I can distinguish it from that. But I think the choice that my ancestors made in the film - and I feel this through the process of making the show - was the choice to live because had they taken any of those other options, all those children would have been left behind. And there were children everywhere, Terry. It's one of the things I'm proudest of in recreating these images that is maybe a little bit different from the images that have come before is we make sure to put children everywhere.
And if there was a choice, it was to live and protect those children because by 1885, there are men in Congress who were born into slavery because my ancestors protected those children. And so for me, this show was about we contextualizing them because I believe now through making this show, my ancestors are responsible for the greatest act of collective parenting the world has ever seen - the world has ever seen. How is MLK possible without this act of collective parenting? How am I possible without this act of collective parenting?
GROSS: You know, in terms of the collective parenting, as your series makes clear, like, the children were property, they were valuable. And if you were a plantation owner with enslaved people, you wanted them to have children because it just added to the property that you had. It added to the workers that you had enslaved or you could sell them. So, I mean, there was a dollar sign on those children.
JENKINS: I mean, there was - I mean - but we were talking earlier about how the show relates to present day. I think the private prison industrial complex is the same way. You know, we need prisoners to fuel the system. And I think that's why so many means of both incarceration codes and entrapment practices - but yes I think it's a direct mirror of that. And even more to that point, the families were fractured. A child will be born and the child will be sent somewhere else. This was systematic, and yet the child would always arrive somewhere, and somehow a new family unit would be born. And this is crazy because we think of Black families - and I'm not saying we. I'm saying somehow through media, through the imagery that we are presented, we think of Black fathers as being absent. You know, we think of Black mothers as being uncaring. And nothing - nothing could be farther from the truth because the fact of my existence is proof positive that this parenting had to have taken place.
It's why one of the images in the show - and it's a completely innocuous image - is of an enslaved Black man sitting on a porch sewing a doll for two children who he did not conceive but whom he will raise as his own because Black men did that. Black women did that. My ancestors did that. And I want to recontextualize them so that when we see them, when we view them, this is what we see first and foremost. And the condition of their enslavement - you know, right now, we're referring to them as enslaved, which I think is very honorable and worthy, but it takes the onus off of who they were and places it on what was done to them. And I want to get to what they did. And what they did was protect all those children, Terry.
GROSS: Well, I want to talk more about your series and your life. But first, we have to take a short break. So let me introduce you here. My guest is Barry Jenkins, and he directed the new series "The Underground Railroad," which starts streaming Friday. He also directed the films "Moonlight" and "If Beale Street Could Talk." So we'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Barry Jenkins. He directed the films "Moonlite," which won an Oscar for best picture, and "If Beale Street Could Talk," which was adapted from a James Baldwin novel. Jenkins directed the new 10-part series, "The Underground Railroad," which is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. It tells the stories of a teenage girl, Cora, who escapes enslavement on a brutal Georgia plantation and the slave catcher who is pursuing her. In the story, the Underground Railroad is literally a train that operates in secret underground and transports people escaping slavery to other states. Each of those states has devised its own obstacles to prevent Black people from truly achieving freedom.
We last spoke after you directed the film "Moonlite," which won the Oscar for best picture. And the mother in that story is dealing with addiction, which leaves her son basically without a parent. And so a drug dealer and his girlfriend become the boy's parental surrogates. And they both seem like wise and generous people, but we later learn that the drug dealer is the same dealer who's selling to Chiron's mother, to the boy's mother, and keeping her addicted. Your mother was addicted, and that's why there were years of your life when she really wasn't available to you as a parent. Can I ask how your mother is now?
JENKINS: She's good, man. She's good. You know, she's vaccinated. She's good. I mean, as good as anybody can be in this time right now. You know, I'll say this. I think making that film, it opened up a line of communication between us that - not that it had not existed, but it had become frayed. And that's what I'll say about that. But, yeah, she's good, man. She's good.
GROSS: So who raised you during the years? I know your father died when you were 12.
JENKINS: Yeah. I was raised by a woman named Minerva Hall, my grandmother, who I'm pretty sure was no blood relation to me, but was a caretaker for my mom during her very, very rough years. There's actually a character in "The Underground Railroad" named after her. Mingo's wife is named Minerva, after my grandma, Minerva Hall. She was awesome. She was the kind of woman who - there would be, you know, 12 people in a two-bedroom apartment, you know, at different periods because if you needed a shelter, she would provide it. You know, it's interesting. I didn't - I don't make these connections as I'm making work, I'm just about the characters. But I mean, there's a direct line between the way Minerva took care of me and the way these kids, these children, who were split off from their families were taken care of by my ancestors.
GROSS: Were you treated like a son?
JENKINS: I was. I was. I was. I was. I was. It was different, but I was. I was. I think just like with Cora in this show, so many people are trying to show her love, you know, whether it's Caesar, played by Aaron Pierre, or Royal, played by William Harper, you know, or John Valentine or any of these characters. But when you have this hole in your heart, it's kind of hard to receive love. And I think that was very much a function of how I operate as a child.
GROSS: How many children were there living at the home with you?
JENKINS: Oh, it depend (ph). There were times where there were, like, I don't know, six or seven of us, you know? Sometimes my brother was there. My brother's nine years older than me. Every now and then, my sister would be there. She's ten years older than me. But yeah, it was a revolving door depending on how hard the times were. And we talk about, you know, crack cocaine a lot as it refers to the 1980s, but also the disappearance of industrialized work in these communities was also happening at the same time. So there were a lot of folks who needed space on these floors.
Minerva's husband Nathaniel - Nathaniel Hall - he was a longshoreman. And it's kind of cool. I actually haven't thought of this, Terry, but there's an episode of "The Underground Railroad" that we didn't get to make called Genesis. It's about these Black men who were working in a mine, and the mine caves in during an explosion. And there were insurance policies taken out on the enslaved, especially these men who worked in these mines. And rather than dig the men out, the owner of the mine decides he will leave them buried and cash in the insurance. And so these men start digging and digging and digging, and they come up above the Mason-Dixon line. And rather than walk to freedom, they go back down, and they keep digging. This is how "The Underground Railroad" begins. We wrote the script. It was really short, but very expensive to shoot a film like that.
But I say that because Nathaniel, who paid the rent, my granddad, the longshoreman who always had a roof for these 10 to 12 people - when I saw him with his hard hat and people said the Underground Railroad for the first time, that's what I saw. Not even imagine, that's what I saw. Because I never got to go to work with him. I didn't realize he was unloading shipping containers on a ship. I thought, yo, he's got a hard hat and a tool belt. He's going to build something. But yeah, it was Minerva and Nathaniel.
GROSS: You were a football player in high school, right?
JENKINS: I was - not a very good one. I played with some very, very, very talented people, people who made it to the NFL. But, yes, I was.
GROSS: Did the fact that you were on a team and that, you know, sports are, like, really structured - there's a game, you have to (laughter), you know, you have to learn the plays and everything - was that helpful to you growing up, having the structure, having the team, having a discipline?
JENKINS: It was helpful. It was even beyond helpful. I think it maybe saved my life to a certain degree. You know, I grew up without a father figure. And these coaches - you know, it's funny thinking back on them now because I think I thought of them as these old dudes, you know, who were...
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.
JENKINS: ...You know, like, three generations above me. I realize now many of them were younger than I am right now. And yet they were the men in my life. And they were tough, but they were fair. And I do believe they taught me valuable lessons, and they gave me self-esteem. And there's no doubt - and it's funny, I make these art films now, but when I'm on my sets, I'm basically a football coach, where I'm emulating these Black men that I grew up with.
You know, Coach Smith, Coach Hardwick - man, Coach Hardwick saved my life. This guy, Coach Hardwick, he's the first person to call me a man, and he did it in a way that it wasn't about masculinity or hypermasculinity. It was just he was talking to me, we're having a conversation, and he wanted me to understand that he respected what I was saying. And I think those are very valuable lessons if you're someone who's growing up without a father.
GROSS: What else did you emulate about the coaches?
JENKINS: I mean, you'd have to come to one of my sets, Terry, and check it out.
GROSS: (Laughter) I'd love to.
JENKINS: But basically, you know, I'm very diligent. I think the best coaches understand that their ego must be checked because they are not the ones performing. I think on a film set, a director can be a tyrant. You know, they can be this person that feels all powerful. When I'm on a set, I sometimes feel powerless, you know, but I give that power to the crew. I give that power to the cast. And my goal and my job and my hope is just like my coach's, which is to inspire everyone I'm working with to be - this is going to sound so softheaded - but to be the best them that they can be. And I promise you, Terry, as people watch my work, the things that affect them the most, the moments that affect them the most and the ones I have the least to do with, you know, it's where these people are out on the set or they're in the scene and they're becoming this thing that is in them to become. And it's what I love the most about what I do.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barry Jenkins. He directed the 10-episode series "The Underground Railroad," which is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. The series starts streaming on Amazon Friday. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Barry Jenkins, who directed the 10-part series "The Underground Railroad," which starts streaming on Amazon Friday. It's adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. Jenkins also directed the films "Moonlight" and "If Beale Street Could Talk."
There's a scene in the "Indiana" chapter of "The Underground Railroad." And this is the chapter in which Cora is in a community where Black people own and run a farm. And they make wine. And they're free and prosperous. In that episode, there's a scene where everybody from that community is standing alongside each other in a row, facing forward and looking up but sideways as the camera pans across all of their faces and bodies. And I'd like you to talk about the effect of that moment and also what you told the actors to do, like, how you choreographed that scene, including their eyes.
JENKINS: Yeah. Yeah. They were just moments - we were talking about feel before, I could just feel that something was happening on the set. You know, one, we were in the state of Georgia. So we're standing on the soil our ancestors stood on. And I could just feel something in us or something in them was fusing. And in those moments, I would stop the show. Those moments are not planned. They're not rehearsed. And I would say very simply to the cast, show me yourselves. I'm going to drift the camera past you. And I just want you to look directly in it and just show me yourself. And that's it - really, really simple. Terry, we have, like, five hours of those moments. They're interspersed throughout the show but very few of them. And that one was one of the few where because of the state that we're transposing, Indiana, where everyone's free, there was just something very self-possessed about that moment.
And I don't know if it's to say, you know, look at this. Look at how beautiful this could be if these people were just left to themselves and allowed to be fully possessed of themselves. But I think even more than that, you know, I've always had this impulse to view my ancestors. I want to see them. And there's something about this direct gaze and, again, softheaded - this show, man, it made me so damn soft. But I think, maybe, in some degree, if you believe in the spiritual connection of beings, that also they can see us because they're looking directly into the audience. And the audience is looking directly into them. And so - yeah, that's what those moments, those shots, are about.
GROSS: Do you feel that over the years, just through time, through getting older and through reading and adapting James Baldwin and making this new series, "The Underground Railroad" - and just learning more about the history of your ancestors, do you feel like you understand your mother more?
JENKINS: I do. I do feel like creating these three works has made me understand my mother more. You know, I actually - I kind of regret some of the way I've spoken about my mother in the press because, you know, I talk about her as regards to "Moonlight." And I talk about her in regards to "The Underground Railroad." I've never talked about her in regards to the character Regina King plays in "If Beale Street Could Talk." And I think there were moments in my life where my mom did go to bat for me. And there were these moments where she did find a way to correct the ills that were painting her. And she was there. And she was present.
You know, I had my mom pretty much for my high school years. You know, I had my mom for my high school years. We didn't live together. But we had a very good relationship. And if I need it - because, again, the greatest act of collective parenting the world has ever seen - there is nothing Black parents won't do for their children. And this is something that we've found a way to contextualize as being bad or being negative. I mean, I definitely had that experience with my mom through high school. So I regret not talking more about her in the "Beale Street" press. But maybe I should've talked to Terry Gross for "Beale Street" and that would have corrected that. But I do think it has brought me a greater understanding of her.
GROSS: Can you talk more about how your understanding of your mother has changed over the years?
JENKINS: One, I just - I guess I'll tell the short version. The man I'm named after, my father, Barry, I'm pretty sure is not my actual father. And yet I learned, after about 25 years of life, that Barry raised my brother and my sister as his own children for the 10 years before I was conceived. And I believe it was an act of infidelity that caused this break between my father and my mother. And this thing is what led my mother down the very dark path that she had to deal with, the demons she had to wrestle with for the fracturing of this family.
Knowing that was - it was - not that I should have needed that information to reconcile the sense of abandonment that I felt. But knowing it and learning it, it just completely shifted so many things. And even though we're not the kind of people who communicate as forthrightly as you and I are communicating right now, I think emotionally and spiritually, it did shift the axis of our relationship.
GROSS: Was I right in saying before that your father died when you were 12?
JENKINS: You were, yes. Yes, you were. However, it's just a tricky thing, man. It's a tricky thing because I'm not sure who my father is. And so...
GROSS: Right, right.
JENKINS: Yeah. So it's a tricky thing. It's a tricky thing, Terry.
GROSS: But this was Barry. This was Barry who died when you were 12.
JENKINS: This was Barry. Yes, ma'am.
GROSS: Were you living together at the time?
JENKINS: No, I have never - I have been in the same room with Barry multiple times over those 12 years. And we never said a word to one another - or he never said a word to me. And even that I didn't understand. But then when I got that information around the age of 25, I understood, man. I understood.
GROSS: That's a lot to take in.
JENKINS: It can be. And maybe I'm working it out through creating these images. You know, I do think that the journey that Cora goes through in the show through her deal with Grace in North Carolina and then with where she ends up at the end, you kind of learn through doing, and you kind of repair yourself through living life. And I think that's what I'm doing through both living my life and creating this art.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barry Jenkins. He directed the 10-episode series "The Underground Railroad," which is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. The series starts streaming on Amazon Friday. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Barry Jenkins, who directed the 10-part series "The Underground Railroad," which starts streaming on Amazon Friday. It's adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. Jenkins also directed the films "Moonlight" and "If Beale Street Could Talk."
Did you get to see a lot of movies when you were growing up?
JENKINS: I did, and I didn't. You know? We would go to the movies, and I saw really big-budget American films at the AMC Omni, Omni Plaza. You know, I remember seeing things like "Coming To America," "The Color Purple." You know, Kid 'n Play was big. You know, I remember seeing "House Party" and "Class Act" and things like that.
GROSS: Why did you want to become a filmmaker?
JENKINS: You know, it was interesting. We were just talking about my mom so much. You know, that first semester of film school was really brutal at Florida State University. You know, I entered film school and the first semester, realized I was a bit in over my head. I didn't know you needed a light to expose film. And so technically, I was far behind my peers. You know, I had to question a lot of things. You know, the question was, you know, am I not good at this because I'm, you know, I'm Black and I'm poor and I grew up in the projects with a mom addicted to crack cocaine? Or do I just not have access to the tools these kids have had? Have I just not been as privileged as these kids have been?
And I took a year off. And this was around 9/11. And I came back, and I made a short film. People were saying being Arab or being Muslim in America is the new Black. You know, I knew what it felt like to be Black in America. And through my research, reading and watching all these great films, I knew that film was an empathy machine. I thought, oh, if I can figure out a way to empathize with these people and make a film, maybe there's a way that I can harness my voice.
And so I made a film about this Arab American couple washing American flags for free, you know, as a sign of patriotism. I called it "My Josephine." And I made that thing, and it worked. I'm really proud of that short. And right away, I realized - it was the first time in my life where these perceived handicaps that I thought I had, I just blasted through them. I disproved those thoughts that I had in the back of my mind about myself. And I thought, oh, if I can do this for a living, hell yeah. And I've just been chasing it ever since.
GROSS: I like the expression that film is an empathy machine. What led you to start thinking of movies that way?
JENKINS: I think it was the feeling that the films gave me. People talk about Wong Kar-wai and how indebted to Wong Kar-wai's work my films are. But they talk of that purely in aesthetics. But I think also, too - again, I'm a kid who grew up, you know - I know five square blocks, and those are some hard-ass blocks. And now I'm watching this movie about these men, you know, in Asia who are in love. And this is so far removed from any experience I've ever had. And yet I feel things. Just as an example, right away, I thought, this is one of the most powerful things I've ever experienced in my life.
GROSS: So it really unlocks something to realize that you could use your experiences and put them to work, even if it wasn't about people who you knew.
JENKINS: Not even that, Terry. I mean, yes, that, but also I can do this. And it was very clear to me there's no reason why I can't do this. The democratization of the form at the curriculum I went through at Florida State University, everybody had the same cameras, the same emulsions - 'cause we shot everything on film. And just it clicked in my head. I start with an empty frame like anyone else, and there's nothing limiting me from painting within that frame something evocative and maybe even beautiful, but definitely empathetic.
And there was just something - I mean, you have to understand, I don't know where or how you grew up, Terry, but, you know, there's this line in "If Beale Street Could Talk" where Baldwin writes, the kids had been told that they weren't worth [expletive], and everything they saw around them proved it. You know, this book was written in the '70s. I grew up in the '80s and the '90s, and it still was applicable.
And so to get into a place or a space where I could take my experience and harness it in a form that was shareable, that was rich, that could actually incite people to feeling a movement, there was just nothing. It was the - one of the most affirming things that's ever happened in my life. And as I make more work, nothing - not winning an Oscar, you know, not even the magic I was talking about on set - nothing compares to that feeling.
GROSS: What are some of the things that made you feel, when you were growing up, that your life wasn't worth anything or that you weren't worth anything?
JENKINS: You know, it's interesting working in media now or the creation of images. You know, I would watch things like "The Cosby Show." You know, why can't my life be like that? Or even just in the neighborhood that I grew up in, you know, there were people who had these very strong family units. And I did not, you know? I wasn't told, you know, I was loved or I love you, you know, as often as maybe a child should be told.
But it's interesting. As children, we do a great job of contextualizing our condition. And so I don't know that I felt the lack in the moment. I don't know that I felt it acutely. I think it was only as I got further away from that experience and I viewed my childhood in the context of others' childhood that I realized there was a deficiency. Terry, man, you started off light, but you finally - I knew you were going to do this, man. We started off. We were real chill. And then we got into the darkness.
GROSS: Whoa, whoa, whoa.
JENKINS: I knew it.
GROSS: We started off light? We were talking about somebody being burned alive...
JENKINS: That's true.
GROSS: ...After they were whipped, then hung by their arms.
JENKINS: That is true.
GROSS: I don't (laughter)...
JENKINS: That is true. You know what?
GROSS: You can't accuse me of starting off light.
JENKINS: That is true. You know what, then? I guess I just got warmed up. At first, I was speaking with the intellectual side of my brain, and now it's become all heart. So kudos to you, boss lady.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, OK. Thank you very much. So you've done some pretty heavy films - you know, "Moonlight" and "If Beale Street Could Talk," now the film "The Underground Railroad." And one of the next films you're going to do is a prequel to "The Lion King." So how do you see that fitting into your body of work? Why do you want to do that? And will it be live action or animated? There's some live action.
JENKINS: It's a blend of the live action animation, as they call it, I guess. The reason I wanted to do it was the characters, man. It was the characters. This thing snuck up on me. When I read it, I did not assume - or when I began reading it, you know, I did not think I was going to be into it. And I sat down to read. You know, depending on how a thing comes to me, I'll always read 30 pages of it. And I looked up, and I was on page 70. And I realized I was hooked.
You know, the original film - the animated film came out while I was helping my sister raise my two nephews at the time. And so we watched this movie hundreds of times - I mean, hundreds of times, Terry. So I had a very deep love and appreciation of the characters. And the writer Jeff Nathanson, who wrote the script - he just approached it in a way that I thought was refreshing. And - shocker, Terry, shocker, shocker - but I saw quite a few things about the way I grew up in the story of the way Mr. Mufasa grew up. And so I thought, you know what? Maybe I actually ought to take this.
GROSS: So what's one similarity?
JENKINS: You know, I grew up in this way where I kind of, like, collected this family, you know? I don't know who my father is, and I grew up in this place where I always felt unmoored. And then I started making these films, and I've kind of built this family around me. I've built these people who I deeply love, who I've been working with nonstop for the last 20 years. And I think there's something about the way this character Mufasa learned to be who he is that is very deeply embedded in the script that Jeff has written as well. That's all I'll say about that, and hopefully Disney won't strike me down where I sit for even saying that much.
GROSS: Barry Jenkins, it's just been a pleasure to talk with you again. Congratulations on the series, and thanks so much for coming back to our show.
JENKINS: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure - always is.
GROSS: Barry Jenkins directed the 10-part series "The Underground Railroad." It starts streaming on Amazon Friday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be writer Francisco Goldman. His book "The Art Of Political Murder" about the assassination of a Guatemalan human rights activist was adapted into an HBO documentary. His novel "Say Her Name" is a fictionalized account of the tragic death of his wife in a bodysurfing accident. He has a new autobiographical novel called "Monkey Boy." I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEWIS PORTER'S "DAY IS DONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.