The Underground Railroad
Prime Video

Barry Jenkins’
The Underground
Railroad is an
urgent and
relevant drama

Many great literary and cultural works address one artistic truth: Until it’s considered in a contemporary context, the past can continue to be misunderstood and overshadow the present. In his episodic debut, Academy Award™ winner Barry Jenkins tackles a topical and electrifying subject that speaks directly to this in the new Amazon Original series The Underground Railroad on Prime Video. This 10-part historical drama is set in 1812 and tells one story of the roots of racial division that continue to impact North America.

Barry Jenkins’
The Underground Railroad is an urgent and relevant drama

Many great literary and cultural works address one artistic truth: Until it’s considered in a contemporary context, the past can continue to be misunderstood and overshadow the present. In his episodic debut, Academy Award™ winner Barry Jenkins tackles a topical and electrifying subject that speaks directly to this in the new Amazon Original series The Underground Railroad on Prime Video. This 10-part historical drama is set in 1812 and tells one story of the roots of racial division that continue to impact North America.

Though it’s a work of historical fiction, for the creators, the plot couldn’t be more relevant today. Based on the Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Colson Whitehead, the series follows Cora, a young runaway as she journeys northward to find freedom in a world determined to oppress her. Inspired by the most successful anti-slavery movement of the time, the anguish and determination of the characters on screen is familiar - the creators see the same cry for justice playing out today, in a new context. By presenting a series that gives audiences the chance to witness a character at a crossroads, creator Barry Jenkins and author Colson Whitehead aim to inspire empathy and understanding and contribute to the dialogue on inequality in today’s world.

A visionary who’s taken the film world by storm, Barry Jenkins' work challenges audiences to experience his characters’ humanity in ways that have been previously overlooked. Lauded as an auteur for his poignant vision of vulnerable black masculinity in 2016’s Moonlight, his breakout feature film received eight Academy Award nominations, and a historic win for Best Picture — the first film featuring an LGBTQ lead character to do so — along with 2 other Oscar wins. Afterwards, Jenkins was named one of the Time 100 most influential people in the world for his contribution to film, and now he’s preparing to launch this adaptation of The Underground Railroad based on the Colson Whitehead novel.

Thuso Mbedu stars as Cora in The Underground Railroad

During their respective childhoods, Jenkins and Whitehead envisioned the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad, deep underground that transported enslaved people to freedom. Though they’ve come together for this groundbreaking series, their formative years could not have been more disparate. Jenkins grew up in poverty in Miami, often separated from his mother, while Whitehead was educated in private schools in Manhattan. Despite this, both have come together with a commitment to creating a thought-provoking series that illuminates the Black experience in a new historical context.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Jenkins noted how much of what gets funding in Hollywood “centered on the white gaze or the white characters” which is squarely not the case with this project. Instead, this series hopes to bring a light to one of America’s darkest moments. As the divides of inequality still persist in America, the creators are inspired to press on to shine a light on the situation today that inspires them to continue to raise awareness: According to the U.S. Department of Labour, in 2018 Black workers made only 75% of what their white colleagues make, and Black men are 5.8 times more likely to get incarcerated than white men according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice in 2018. With this in mind, The Underground Railroad series inspires audiences to look at the characters featured in it with an empathetic lens, in order to understand the importance of their stories.

“In a very nuanced way, even amidst the trauma, the people, the characters [of The Underground Railroad] still retain their humanity. And because of that, I think their personhood remains intact. The condition of slavery is not a thing that’s fixed or static or that has fidelity to them as persons.” Jenkins said, in Vanity Fair. He believes that Colson Whitehead’s novel is the perfect text for a commentary that worked to speak about both the past and present: “it’s a groundbreaking work that pays respect to our nation’s history while using the form to explore it in a thoughtful and original way,” Jenkins said in Variety.

The way Jenkins and Whitehead have explored the lives of their characters with a 10-episode season on Prime Video gives audiences the chance to get close to them and help them see the story from their perspective. “Before you can have Cora grow, you have to see what she’s growing away from,” Whitehead explained to the BFI.

Whitehead notes that even though the attention for his novel has been overwhelming in recent years, the attention still might be fleeting. “I don’t know how long our present conversation about the vulnerability of the Black body will continue. Since we’re not changing the underlying causes, these moments are temporary, because our attention has always shifted elsewhere.” he said to the BFI. For the creators, the present moment of attention to the issues highlighted in this series could disappear quickly.

In the time of The Underground Railroad’s setting, the destination of fugitive slaves was often Canada. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, runaways were assisted by men and women, white and Black abolitionists and sympathizers, and helped between 30,000 to 40,000 fugitives find safe haven.

Many Canadians are aware of Canada’s involvement with the movement, but sometimes absent from the conversation is that at the same time slavery existed in both Canada and the United States. While characters like Cora in The Underground Railroad were escaping across the border, slavery was still legal in Canada - not being abolished until 1834, more than 22 years after the time in which this series is set. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, in the early days of the Underground Railroad many enslaved Black Canadians looked to escape the opposite direction, to the South — travelling to free regions that had not been integrated into the Union, including the former Northwest Territory (present day Michigan and Ohio). It’s an important detail to consider when seeking to understand the narrative that Jenkins and Whitehead present audiences. Though slavery has been long abolished in both Canada and the United States, this series asks its audience to empathize with its characters and consider the facts of inequality which persist.

As they look to inspire conversation and understanding, the creators of The Underground Railroad bring it back to humanity. Jenkins spoke recently in Town and Country about how the lead character Cora is driven by her wish to be reunited with her mother, who she thinks left her selfishly, and he ties it back to his own feelings of abandonment in his childhood: “[Cora’s] hurt wasn’t misplaced, because she was right to feel abandoned, but the abandonment was caused by something that was beyond any of their control”, he says, emphasizing the parallels in this story that continue to resonate with audiences today.

In the U.S., the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 marked the beginning of political freedom from enslavement for Africans in America. In Canada, some years earlier in 1793, the importation of slavery was banned according to The Underground Railroad: Next Stop Toronto, and just under 30 years later slavery was abolished. Now, The Underground Railroad reflects that the importance of examining the works of Black creators is more vital than ever.

As audiences prepare to watch the series on Prime Video, its creators hope that people will see it as a compelling historical drama that draws out an important conversation that’s relevant today. Produced by one of contemporary film’s most influential and talented creators, this powerful series based on historical truths in an absorbing drama that provides artists like Jenkins a platform to showcase new visions of history that challenge our understanding of the events, and how they continue to reverberate throughout society today.

Watch Now on Prime Video