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The Underground Railroad reaches new heights in making TV cinematic

  • Barry Jenkins' Amazon series based on Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer-winning novel is "a masterwork that puts into the spotlight the sheer power and communion that can be found with visual storytelling. This is a series not so much witnessed but felt," says Angelica Jade Bastién. "Jenkins’s camera captures something I’ve always recognized in the South: the particularities of the sunlight. The sun feels different everywhere you go. When I am home in Loreauville, Louisiana, it reminds me of honey — thick and sweet. It envelops your body with its heat, like wearing a wool coat in the middle of summer. Jenkins’s camerawork has a textured quality that thrusts you into setting and helps you understand the characters that walk the land. And it makes this work cinematic in ways other television shows rarely are. Many series over the last decade or so have been deemed 'cinematic' merely because you can see the amount of money spent on the screen. But few actually move with the rhythm of film. In The Underground Railroad, images unfurl with a care and sincerity that demonstrates Jenkins’s love and understanding of the history of the medium." Bastién adds that The Underground Railroad has "a swimming quality. It sincerely and slowly pans through its environment, charting faces, bodies, and landscapes. But it would be simplistic and inaccurate to call Jenkins’s style 'roving.' The camera is never a neutral observer. It is curious, empathetic, and deliberate. Jenkins deploys it delicately and forcefully, with the dancerly grace of a ballerina. There’s a striking friction in how he moves between ostentatiously shot scenes (that call attention to themselves while never taking us out of the moment), camera movements that float through the surroundings, and static close-up shots that often act as punctuation, infusing the proceedings with new meaning...The visual lyricism at work here is what makes the characters feel so alive." 


    • The Underground Railroad attempts to answer questions that art rarely does: "From the very onset of the series, (Barry) Jenkins has little interest relying solely on the appeal of mystery or the techniques of modern horror," says  Lex Pryor. "The Underground Railroad is a slave epic fashioned entirely around the minds, emotions, and desires of its characters. It is a tale concerned not with what will or could happen in worlds like these, but more vitally, what does. The series and its source text, written by the two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient Colson Whitehead, are links in a chain that reaches back to the birth of the peculiar institution itself. Slavery has been a topic of the American artistic canon for as long as a canon has existed. The format shifts—autobiography, fiction, film, television—but the setting is always vaguely familiar."
    • The Underground Railroad is not a history lesson -- it's a mirror: "Art — the dutiful soldier of public discourse on difficult subjects — is doing a lot of educational heavy lifting, leaving us with a cinema focused in large part on making sure that audiences learn the essential lessons: that slavery happened, that it was as bad as you’ve heard and that its effects linger in American life," says Scott Woods. "This is a well-intentioned effort. But it is not enough to say that slavery was bad. We must contend with the intellectual and moral arguments that made it possible to conceive, then implement, the system. The Underground Railroad — through its fully realized Black characters and exploration of the range of Black political thought — does something exceedingly rare: It forces every kind of American to reckon with how we have tried to resolve slavery, individually and as a country. All of this inequality we continue to see comes from somewhere. The Underground Railroad is not less traumatic than other fare, showing brutality to rival that of Antebellum and 12 Years a Slave. But in Mr. Jenkins’s adaptation, there is no violence for education’s sake, and no fetishizing of Black trauma. The violence arrives only when necessary for the development of the story, and it isn’t gone in the next scene — the characters bear its scars, seen and unseen."
    • How Barry Jenkins films his powerfully intimate lingering close-ups: "The direct-to-camera shots are very much a Jenkins signature,” says editor Joi McMillon. “But I think they work because Barry doesn’t shoot it for five seconds and then call ‘Cut.’ He stays with these characters.” The close-ups can be demanding physically and emotionally for the actors. “You have to develop a rapport with the actors,” says director of photography James Laxton. “That’s a big, somewhat unsung, part of the job. You have to find a way to make them feel comfortable and collaborate with them and engage with them in a way that makes them feel safe and protected....For the moment, you’re their audience, before it gets to the directors, the editors, or the actual screen.”
    • The Underground Railroad filmed in a nonprofit train museum in Savannah, Georgia containing a 200-year-old preserved train yard with just over 100 yards of train track: The museum agreed to shut down for four months and provide the Amazon series old-school trains that production designer Mark Friedberg retrofitted and modified for each scene. The museum’s train safety staff also ended up driving the trains for most of the scenes. “It very much set the tone for the way we were going to tell the story,” says Friedberg. “It was so important to figure out how to actually make it, to do the physical labor, and overtly underline the metaphor of what an underground railroad represented.” 

    TOPICS: The Underground Railroad, Amazon, Barry Jenkins, James Laxton, Joi McMillon, Mark Friedberg, Cinematography, Production Design

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