Barry Jenkins Gets the Amazon Love He Deserves with ‘The Underground Railroad’ Book

Exclusive: It may have been shut out at the Emmys, and Jenkins believes the Amazon binge criticism was valid, "but that they don't care about the show is just completely false."
The Underground Railroad Thuso Mbedu Emmys Amazon Prime Video
Thuso Mbedu in "The Underground Railroad"
Kyle Kaplan / Amazon Studios

When Amazon Prime Video faced a shutout at the 2021 Emmys, among the snubs were seven nominations for Barry Jenkins’  “The Underground Railroad.” Critics loved Jenkins’ limited series based on Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel, but audiences may have been slow to embrace realistically grim programming during a pandemic — and Amazon faced criticism for what some perceived as lackluster handling of the limited series’ release.

Whatever: The series, which is​ still eligible for guild awards this year, did pick up Spirit Awards and Golden Globe nominations in major categories. And Amazon clearly knows Jenkins’ rhapsodic adaptation stands as a singular work of artistic achievement. Even as the drama’s award window recedes, the streamer commissioned a lush promotional book comprised of exclusive essays, photography, and art that celebrates the craftspeople responsible for bringing it to the screen. It’s not for sale; Amazon made it widely accessible in digital form, and IndieWire has a first-look. The entire 174-page “The Underground Railroad” digital publication can be accessed here.

“I thought it was a really lovely way to honor the work everyone involved had done on the show and it far exceeded my expectations,” Jenkins said in a conversation with IndieWire. “The fact that all those essays are original blew my mind, and just the presentation of it. It felt like making the show all over again, but in the best way, just honoring all the work that everyone put into it, from the art department, to the actors, to the writers, to everyone.”

Arguably, it would have been better to see this book published six months ago, before TV Academy voters filled their ballots, It’s a gorgeous work that can’t hurt its chances at the winter TV awards, but it’s also a celebratory project that can continue to inspire further conversation about the series and the history it foregrounds.

While it wasn’t Jenkins’ original idea, he worked with Amazon to piece it together and assigned credit to the studio for much of its creation.

“Once they told me they were doing it, I gave a little bit of guidance, and suggested writers for certain chapters, but at other points, it was completely hands off,” he said. “Once they had a rough draft of it, I gave feedback.”

For Jenkins, it rebukes criticisms leveled against Amazon for perceived apathy. “People kept saying that Prime doesn’t care about this show, and you can debate the efficacy of releasing every episode at once, as a binge watch,” he said. “I think that criticism is valid, but that they don’t care about the show is just completely false. I think the book is proven evidence of the opposite. Nothing compares to this.”

He spoke glowingly of the hardcover version’s grandeur, likening it to a Taschen coffee table book while also admitting some dismay over its lack of wide availability in that format. The only hardcover copies were distributed to select journalists.

“The book is gorgeous, and, unfortunately, you can’t really appreciate how amazing this thing is without physically holding it in your hand,” Jenkins said. “It’s epic in and of itself, but when you go to each individual chapter, and especially when you read the essays, it’s impressive because it’s the kind of writing that these writers probably can’t do as critics. But nobody needs to come out-of-pocket anymore for anything related to the series, though I do wish we could stock it in the libraries somewhere so people could check it out that way.”

The essays come from a diverse group of accomplished writers, kickstarted by an introduction from Robert Daniels, followed by entires written by Matt Zoller Seitz, Doreen St. Félix, Angelica Jade Bastién, Elissa Suh, Jasmine Sanders, Brandon Wilson, Kyndall Cunningham, Danny Leigh, Abigail Nussbaum, Jourdain Searles, and tt stern-enzi. Punctuated by painterly images and artwork that serve as visual essays in their own right, and discussions about craft, they collectively constitute an episodic dive into Cora’s journey.

Jenkins contributed an essay, “The Gaze” — an introduction to a 52-minute series of filmed tableaux vivants inspired by the paintings of renowned African American artist Kerry James Marshall. The non-narrative film, released just prior to the premiere of “The Underground Railroad,” isn’t to be viewed as an episode of the series, but as a work in its own right that speaks to the notion of legacy — the importance of reconciling past with present, in consideration of an unknown future. As Jenkins writes:

In my years of doing interviews, roundtables, and Q&As for the various films we’ve made, there is one question that recurs. No matter the length of the piece or the tone of the room, eventually, inevitably, I am asked about the white gaze. It wasn’t until a very particular interview regarding ‘The Underground Railroad’ that the blind spot inherent in that questioning became clear to me: Never, in all my years of working or questioning, had I been set upon about the Black gaze; or the gaze distilled. I don’t remember when we began making ‘The Gaze,’ which is not and should not be considered an episode of ‘The Underground Railroad.’ It exists apart from that, outside it. Early in production, there was a moment where I looked across the set and what I saw settled me: Our background actors, inworking with folks like Ms. Wendy and Mr. and Mrs. King — styled and dressed and made up by Caroline, Lawrence, and Donnie — I looked across the set and realized I was looking at my ancestors, a group of people whose images have been largely lost to the historical record. Without thinking, we paused production on ‘The Underground Railroad’ and instead harnessed our tools to capture portraits of… them. What flows here is non-narrative. There is no story told. Throughout production, we halted our filming many times for moments like these. Moments where… standing in the spaces our ancestors stood, we had the feeling of seeing them, truly seeing them. And thus, we sought to capture and share that seeing with you.

The Underground Railroad

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