The ‘Moonlight’ director is set to adapt two seminal novels for both film and television.
In the many months since Moonlight premiered, I have often wondered just what Barry Jenkins is up to. Luckily, Jenkins’ brief hiatus — which has felt like an eternity — is about to come to a close.
Not only has Jenkins just wrapped filming his new film If Beale Street Could Talk (which will premiere in November), but Deadline reports that Amazon has greenlit the limited series The Underground Railroad, with Barry Jenkins, set to direct all 11 episodes.
Limited series with a single director — such as Jean-Marc Vallée’s Big Little Lies and Cary Fukunaga’s True Detective — are often exceptionally cohesive, especially in regard to aesthetics. Under a singular directorial vision, performances, pacing, and cinematography remain consistent across every episode. For a filmmaker with as delicate and distinctive a sensibility as Jenkins’, this total control will be transformative and integral to the series.
Jenkins has directed television before, but never on this scale. In 2011, he directed an episode of the web series Futurestates. Jenkins’ episode “Remigration” is a fascinating meditation on gentrification, displacement, and what he calls outmigration.
Just last year, Jenkins directed the fifth episode of Netflix’s Dear White People. Vulture called “Chapter V” the series’ “most pivotal episode.” In the episode, one of the most emotionally intense of the series, a white cop pulls a gun on Reggie, a young black man, at a party. Jenkins directs the sequence with his usual elegant sensitivity, resulting in an incredibly potent and resonant moment.
“Directing that scene was about very organically living in the truth that the threat is always present in the American society we live in today,” he told Vulture in May 2017. “That was the most emotional I’ve ever felt on a set… The gravity, the reality of what we were doing was clear.”
Jenkins’ upcoming project, The Underground Railroad, sounds just as poignant and relevant to our current political context.
The Underground Railroad is based on Colson Whitehead’s bestselling, Pulitzer-winning 2016 novel of the same name. “The Underground Railroad,” tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. An outcast among other slaves, Cora decides to embark on the dangerous journey through the underground railroad and escape.
Notably, the novel blends history and fable, culminating in a distinctly American interpretation of magical realism. Thus, the underground railroad takes the form of a literal railroad, with engineers and conductors operating a network of tracks and tunnels. The narration centers on Cora as she traverses the nation in search of freedom.
Jenkins brings a particular vision to his adaptation of the novel. In an interview with Deadline, he details his first encounter with the source material and his intention in bringing it to the screen:
I just devoured [“The Underground Railroad”]. I fell in love with the main character… [A]s a visual storyteller, it felt like it wanted to be six to eight hours. You want to go on this journey with this character. Not the possibility of a continuing series, and 40 hours, but just eight hours. I think we live in a time right now where the market will create the format that is proper for each story.
Jenkins outlines a clear, uncompromising vision for the novel that will guide him as he adapts it for television. His genuine passion for the story combined with his proven directorial precision will make for an incredible cinematic journey.
Jenkins also just wrapped filming If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel due out in November. If Beale Street Could Talk will tell the story of a Harlem woman who must prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child. Written and directed by Jenkins, the film is fortified with an absolutely stellar cast, including my personal favorites Diego Luna, Regina King, and Brian Tyree Henry.
Adapting If Beale Street Could Talk to film proved challenging for Jenkins, especially since his film will be the first English-language adaptation of Baldwin’s novel. “It was a lot,” he said at a panel in New York last April. “It was about trying to coalesce the thoughts and ideas in the book into something that felt like cinema and not like literature.” Baldwin even enlisted the help of Moonlight playwright Tarell McCraney as he perfected the script.
It would appear I’ve thoroughly answered my initial question, What is Barry Jenkins up to? Since Moonlight, he’s helmed an episode of one of today’s most critically-acclaimed shows, wrote and directed a James Baldwin adaptation with a killer cast, and started work directing an entire limited series based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. There is no doubt that Jenkins’ exciting new projects will be well worth the wait.