Barry Jenkins says adapting ‘The Undergound Railroad’ for Amazon ‘absolutely has to be done the right way’

Barry Jenkins, director of "Moonlight, will write and direct a limited drama series based on Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad."
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times )
Share via

Barry Jenkins conquered the film world with “Moonlight,” the small-budget movie with the big heart that won best picture at last month’s Academy Awards. And now Jenkins is ready for his next challenge.

Amazon announced Monday that it is developing an hourlong limited drama series based on Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning novel “The Underground Railroad,” to be written and directed by Jenkins.

The project is being developed as script-to-series, meaning that if Amazon signs off on the script, it will forgo the pilot stage and go straight to a series order.


The novel follows a young woman’s bid for freedom in a pre-Civil War South, eventually discovering an actual manifestation of an Underground Railroad, complete with tracks and conductors.

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

Joe Lewis, Amazon Studios’ head of comedy, drama and VR. echoed Jenkins sentiments.

“Colson Whitehead’s book is a sweeping, character driven, boundary destroying epic,” he said. “Having Barry bring it to life for Amazon Studios is thrilling. We couldn’t be more excited to see what they create.”

For his follow-up to “Moonlight,” Jenkins had been wavering between “Railroad” and an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Jenkins already had the “Beale Street” screenplay in hand, having written it, along with “Moonlight,” during a focused six weeks spent in Brussels during the summer of 2013.

Making “Beale Street,” a love story set against the backdrop of racial injustice in 1970s Harlem, had a certain appeal to Jenkins, beyond what he calls the novel’s “huge relevance” to what’s happening in America right now.

“I could make that movie pretty quickly,” Jenkins told The Times in November, noting he wanted to avoid coming anywhere close to approaching the eight-year lag between “Moonlight” and his first movie, “Medicine for Melancholy.”


“‘The Underground Railroad’ is a massive job,” he added. “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.”

The series will be executive produced by Jenkins’ production company, Pastel, and Brad Pitt’s Plan B.

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »




Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’ is timely, necessary and shattering

To give birth to ‘Moonlight,’ writer-director Barry Jenkins dug deep into his past

Barry Jenkins’ magical, majestic ‘Moonlight’ is a stunning portrait of young, black gay life


2:55 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting, including quotes from Jenkins.

This article was originally published at 11:35 a.m.