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Barry Jenkins’ ‘Underground Railroad’ teaser bowls over peers: ‘I am not ready’

Director Barry Jenkins
Director Barry Jenkins’ next project is “The Underground Railroad.”
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Barry is back, and we’re not ready.

On Monday, Barry Jenkins, acclaimed director of the Oscar-winning films “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” shared a teaser trailer for “The Underground Railroad,” the upcoming Amazon Prime Video series that he wrote, produced and directed.

And the crowd went wild.

“Every time I watch this, I focus on a different actor’s face and all the emotion it carries and it unexpectedly brings me to tears again and again,” tweeted “The Farewell” director Lulu Wang, who is also Jenkins’ wife. “The amount of humanity in this show, in this shot alone, is astounding.”

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“This King over hereabout to make me cry over a TEASER TRAILER,” tweeted “Selma” director Ava DuVernay. “The power of @BarryJenkins. Looking gorgeous, brother.”

“I am not ready,” tweeted Black List founder Franklin Leonard. “I’m just not. It’s that simple.”

The “Underground Railroad” limited series is based on Colson Whitehead’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the same name. Whitehead also serves as an executive producer on the nine-episode show.

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“Going back to ‘The Intuitionist,’ Colson’s writing has always defied convention, and ‘The Underground Railroad’ is no different,” Jenkins said in a March 2017 statement. “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.”

The series’ storyline follows the journey of young Cora (Thuso Mbedu) as she seeks freedom in the antebellum South. After escaping a Georgia plantation for the rumored Underground Railroad, Cora discovers an actual railroad of conductors and a secret network of tracks beneath the Southern soil.

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“‘The Underground Railroad’ is a massive job,” Jenkins said in 2017. “Right now, I’m thinking I want to do that over six or seven hours, and that will take a lot of time and consideration because it absolutely has to be done the right way. It’s a landmark work.”

In the teaser trailer, row upon row of Black American faces gaze solemnly into the camera as it zooms further and further outward. Melancholy string music plays over the rich, sepia tones. “Who built all this?” a disembodied voice asks. “Well, who builds anything in this country?” another voice replies.

When Barry Jenkins decided in 2013 that he absolutely needed to adapt James Baldwin’s novel “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the director had made just one ultra-low-budget feature, and he certainly didn’t have the book rights from Baldwin’s estate.

“There haven’t been enough of these [films made from Black literature] and they were few and far between,” Jenkins told The Times in 2018. “I don’t want to sound as though every novel by a Black author should be translated to the screen, but damn sure many more of them should be.

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“For many white audience members, this might be the first time they’ve met the unbroken gaze of an African American,” Jenkins said. “Even when you read a book you can’t feel that connection, but here it becomes unbreakable.”


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