‘The Underground Railroad’: Everything You Need to Know About Barry Jenkins’ Amazon Series

The "Moonlight" director's first television series will premiere on Amazon Prime Video.
"The Underground Railroad"
"The Underground Railroad"

The years-long wait for “The Underground Railroad,” the first television series from acclaimed filmmaker Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) isn’t quite over, but new details are beginning to emerge about the highly-anticipated project.

“The Underground Railroad,” which is set to premiere on Amazon Prime Video, is an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Whitehead’s novel took place in an alternate history where the 19th century Underground Railroad was a literal railroad that American slaves used to flee the South and find freedom.

Amazon’s synopsis for Jenkins’ adaptation reads:

“The limited series chronicles young Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) journey as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. After escaping her Georgia plantation for the rumored Underground Railroad, Cora discovers no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.”

Mbedu (“Is’thunzi”) stars in the series alongside Chase W. Dillon (“Little America”), Aaron Pierre (“Krypton)”, and Joel Edgerton.

“The Underground Railroad” will premiere on May 14. Production on the series was a 116-day endeavor and was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic; there were only three days of production left on the show before the pandemic forced production to halt in Georgia. Jenkins, who directed every episode of the show, told IndieWire in an April interview that working on the series made for one of the greatest challenges of his career.

Though few details about the show were released in the years following the show’s announcement in 2016, Jenkins has begun teasing snippets of the project over the last few months. Jenkins unveiled a handful of first look photos in September, which boasted visually impressive backdrops and costumes, as well as a first listen of Nicholas Britell’s original score in October.

Amazon announced the show’s premiere date via a teaser trailer on February 25, which can be viewed below.

Jenkins previously shared a teaser for the show on his birthday, November 19, 2020. The director tweeted a link to a new video of the show and, though the teaser lacks new plot details, it more than makes up for what’s missing with all manner of powerful imagery and music.

“Appreciate the birthday well-wishes, I’ve been more fortunate than anyone deserves,” Jenkins said on Twitter. “Feels like a moment to share a bit — in the words of Sojourner Truth, to ‘speak upon the ashes.’ Much love.”

That teaser for “The Underground Railroad” can be viewed below.

In another trailer released in January, Jenkins told IndieWire a bit about the look, which unfolds entirely in reverse motion. The idea started with a composition by Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” composer, Nicholas Britell. “I said to Nick, is there a way to compose with chords that have the same feelings, same energy, the same power in reverse as they do play forwards?”  Jenkins said.

Britell fulfilled his wishes, and he sat on the composition for about two months before reaching an epiphany.

“As we kept editing more and more on the show, there’d be these moments that, as I was watching them, my mind would immediately start unseeing them, and I thought, ‘I think there’s something here’,” he said. “So I was literally walking out of the office on one Friday and said to Daniel Morfesis, who cut this piece, ‘Here’s a song. Listen to it, and I want to come in Monday, and all I want to see are images played in reverse. And the catch is those images have to narratively say as much in reverse as they do going forward.’ And so it kind of came out of my own emotional response to making the show.”

Watch that trailer here:

On May 7, IndieWire debuted a track from Nicholas Britell’s score from the project. The Britell-Jenkins partnership is one of the most dynamic in entertainment, and Britell spoke a bit about their collaboration:

“It’s always an interesting question for me and for Barry, ‘What are we trying to say with the music?’ For us, the orchestra became a tool for a certain type of tone. ‘Bessie’ is really the most full realization of that idea within the world of ‘The Underground Railroad,’” Britell said. “That’s the sound of 50 strings together. We recorded it at AIR Studios in London. This was the largest orchestra that Barry and I as collaborators have ever done together.”

“Bessie,” the track embedded below,  is one of 25 cues that will appear on “The Underground Railroad: Volume 1” from Lakeshore Records.

This post will be updated as more information about the project becomes available.

Additional reporting on this piece was done by Tambay Obenson.

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