Barry Jenkins, whose film Moonlight eventually won the Oscar for best picture last month, has signed up to direct his first ever project for TV – an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel The Underground Railroad.
Following two runaway slaves in the 18th Century US, the story blends actual American history with magical realism: it reimagines the real underground railroad – which was a network of safehouses and pathways with which abolitionists helped African-American slaves escape to free states and Canada – as an actual subway under the ground.
“Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the underground railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned – Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.”
Jenkins has been massively in demand following his win at the 89th Oscars in February, only the second time a black director has won the award for Best Picture. It turns out, however, that he’s been working on this project with Whitehead since September, just a month after the book came out.
“Going back to The Intuitionist, Colson’s writing has always defied convention, and The Underground Railroad is no different,” he said. “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. Preserving the sweep and grandeur of a story like this requires bold, innovative thinking and in Amazon we’ve found a partner whose reverence for storytelling and freeness of form is wholly in line with our vision.”
Amazon has won the rights to broadcast the show, but there’s not much else by way of detail about when it’ll come out or how long it will be.
The actual underground railroad was neither underground nor a railroad, rather a network of independent groups that helped slaves escape from the slave-owning southern American states to Canada, where the practice was banned. It was run both by white abolitionists and freeborn African-Americans, and at its peak saved more than 1,000 slaves a year – perhaps freeing as many as 100,000 by 1850.