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THR Talks: Barry Jenkins and Nikole Hannah-Jones on the Nuances of Storytelling and Trauma

The 'Underground Railroad' director and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project creator talk freely about Kanye West saying slavery was a choice, the TikTok calling for Black wizard stories, and the controversy of casting African actors over African American talent.

“You’ve got to unpack that for me.”

In a freewheeling conversation covering subjects ranging from the controversy of casting African actors over African American talent to choosing a filmmaking path that is revelatory without furthering trauma, Barry Jenkins, Oscar winner and director of Amazon’s The Underground Railroad series, exchanged ideas with Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The New York Times‘ The 1619 Project, which reframes slavery and the Black American narrative. The Underground Railroad, a 10-part series adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead, debuts on Prime Video on May 14.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES I was watching the screener and it’s beautiful. But of course, it’s intense. How did you come to do Underground Railroad?

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BARRY JENKINS When I was a kid, I was always kind of fascinated with the Underground Railroad. When I first heard the words “Underground Railroad,” I really believed that we had built this network of trains underground. Then you learn what the actual Railroad is, but I always held on to that feeling. I was a big fan of Colson [Whitehead]’s work. And when I heard that he had written a book about this, I assumed he was going to do something with the conceit to make the railroad real. I read it way back even before Moonlight came out. I just felt like, “This is the one,” because I always knew I wanted to do something that involved the story of our ancestors.

HANNAH-JONES I remember a couple of years ago on The Real Housewives of  Atlanta, when one of the housewives thought the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad and how people laughed at that. But the fantasy of it actually being this physical train is an amazing way to talk about this story, right?

JENKINS I think it’s beyond amazing. Our education system is built in such a way that we don’t teach many perspectives on anything. Even when the gaps were filled in on what the Underground Railroad actually was, I thought, “Oh, so it was white people leaving biscuits and quilts out in the yard.” So I went from this huge, almost Marvel Cinematic Universe[-type vision] to people leaving bread and milk on their back porch, and heightened messages in quilts. [Some historians say quilts contained codes to guide people safely on their journey.] Which is still amazing.

But I think when I heard that story about the women on the Real Housewives, I don’t feel any kind of way about it. I think it’s incumbent upon us — the work that you’ve been doing is filling in some of these gaps in our public consciousness. I will say, I’m making a show where the Underground Railroad is a real thing, so I’m, like, confusing people, but hopefully, it will drive them back to the actual history.

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Director Barry Jenkins (center) on location while shooting The Underground Railroad. Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Prime video
HANNAH-JONES I was doing research the other day and most American kids don’t even know the Frederick Douglass used to be enslaved.
JENKINS I grew up in, I mean, it just wasn’t the best public school system. “Oh, Frederick Douglass is the Black abolitionist who shook Abraham Lincoln’s hand.” That was what it was to me, you know? I think erasure is the thing that we’re facing; it’s the scariest prospect for me.
HANNAH-JONES What were your fears when you decided to take this on? And how did you ensure that it would feel very different from what you’ve done in the past?

JENKINS The second part first: To feel very different — that was kind of easy. I mean, this is just such a whole different world than anything I’ve worked on. You ask how I was able to create these worlds and whatnot. It was by going out on the weekend and getting a whiskey with a good friend; I had to bring myself back to myself. And especially because we filmed the entire show in Georgia, we were walking these spaces that my ancestors walked and there were all these wonderful Civil War actors, all these white gentlemen with old guns in these battlefields and they pretend they’re having these battles. There were also Black folks in the South who were preserv[ing] these traditions of our ancestors. We had so many of them who came down to make sure that we were being accurate.

Now, fear: You know, film is a very seductive, powerful medium, and these images that we’re dealing with are very powerful as well. They’re very triggering and incendiary. I was always fearful that I was going to lose my focus over where the moral and ethical line was — being forthright in these depictions, but also not allowing them to devour myself or the audience, especially the actors who were creating them. So I had to have two minds, one mind of the artist: I’m just here to make a work of art. The other mind was almost like an ethicist, where I have to make sure that I’m doing this for the right reason in the right way. I’m only taking it as far as necessary. And it created this scenario that felt like I was making two films at once.

HANNAH-JONES So, explain.

JENKINS I feel like I made two movies. The one movie is the story of Cora Randall. She’s on this journey. It’s this big adventure, but it’s rooted in the condition of American slavery. That was the one movie. Then this other movie: I’m also aware of the power of the possibility of doing harm with these images. And so I’m making that in my head — I had to see it in order to not do it. Then there was this third thing that happened, which was [about] disconnection and erasure. I feel like we haven’t been allowed to really see our ancestors.

The historical record has systematically erased them, but even imageistically, there are very few portraits. There are very few photos of our ancestors. Here I am with all these tools, all this equipment, all these people. And then there were all these wonderful actors and especially the background actors, our advisers who were literally giving my ancestors a body and voice. So in addition to making the show that was in front of me, I would sometimes stop filming the scenes and just turn the camera on our actors.

A few of those images have made it into the show, but we have hours of them. So I created this thing called The Gaze. Because every time I have a conversation like this, certainly not with you, I end up talking about the white gaze. Why has no one ever asked me about the Black gaze? I’ve got to make sure I’m not making this from the white gaze.

HANNAH-JONES I felt so many connections to my feelings and my fears in creating The 1619 Project. You have the weight of the subject matter, but you also have the weight of the obligation of doing right by the people, you know, our ancestors. I love that you talked about the Black gaze, because one of the things that I was determined to do from the beginning was we were going to do the project that we needed to do. And if white people loved it and Black people hated it, we would have failed, period. Hopefully, a bunch of white folks would like it, but that wasn’t what I was thinking about.

So because of that, there was this constant … you know, the entire system of slavery only exists because of atrocious violence. Violence undergirds the entire system. And the erasure of that brutality is part of how we as Americans deal with what we have done, right? As a country, we have to pretend somehow it wasn’t so bad. We have to downplay the extent of the violence — the fact that people don’t let you sell their children away, they don’t let you violate them voluntarily. But then there’s that other side of it where it’s all violence, and then it becomes gratuitous. We can’t turn away from what happened, but you don’t want to create something that further dehumanizes people who are dehumanized. So I know you had a million of those moments.

JENKINS We’ve seen these images, unfortunately, of our ancestors lynched during Jim Crow. It’s always the aftermath and someone suspended above a crowd. Oftentimes these people were looking at us, the white gaze … there’s a certain brutality and horror in the fact that these people are so proud of what they’ve done. But I feel like we don’t get the other side of it. We haven’t seen what it’s like to suspend a man by his wrists and separate his flesh with the whip. It’s not just that the whip is hurting that man. It is doing things to his flesh. It was tough, man. I will say, when we filmed it, it’s visual effects. There’s no blood, no fire, the guy’s in a harness — wonderful actor.

So it was upon me to say how far we’re going to take this. Visual effects-wise, we could have taken it much farther. It’s onscreen for the briefest of moments.

Now here’s the thing: I wanted to give this man agency, because typically in these films, when these things happen, people are responding to acute trauma, they’re screaming in pain, or begging for their lives. In this case, he speaks to his fellow men and women who are forced to witness. He says, “No more masters, no more slaves.” And then to the brutalizer, he says, “God damn you.” I thought, “If I can just give this man some agency, maybe I can unearth something else in this moment that we aren’t often privy to, but I have to do it.”

Because I can’t tell anyone what the line is for them — where they’ve been forced to witness too much trauma, where they’ve been forced to witness too many atrocities visited upon Black bodies — they have to draw that line for themselves. There’s this and the ending of Moonlight — the two most difficult choices I have ever had to make.

HANNAH-JONES I want to go back to agency. I also, as a journalist, when I write about our history, I make very intentional decisions. I’ve written entire paragraphs that are just the litany of the violence. You know, they cut off people’s tongues and their toes and displayed them in a storefront window. They threw body parts on the lawns of Black people. I feel [that] not talking about that violence is how we deny.

JENKINS In the North Carolina episode, we originally thought we would reflect that; it was in the book. This is what they do: After these lynchings, they collect souvenirs and put them on display, as a fear tactic and hate tactic. And I thought, “That’s too far, that choice.” I’m glad I did.

HANNAH-JONES I don’t know if you saw this TikTok video that went viral a couple of weeks ago of this young man who said, “No more slavery movies. I don’t want to ever see another slavery movie again. I want to see Black wizards.” When I first saw it, I was like, “How disrespectful of our stories,” when I know how poorly we’re taught about this.

But when I thought more about it, what I really think this young man was saying was, he’s tired of seeing movies where we have no agency, right? It’s always about what white people have done to us and us absorbing what white people are doing to us and us having no control. Even in Harriet, she’s mystical. When we’re fighting back in the movie, it’s because she’s having spells — it’s not her own agency and wit and intellect that’s liberating her and other people. You are very intentionally trying to show that agency. So when people say we’ve had enough slavery movies, where do you think that is coming from?

JENKINS I think it is coming from very constrained versions or depictions that we’ve received. I wanted to make this a television show because the hard images, the brutality, is so loud. If you house that in a two-hour film, those things are going to overwhelm the viewer. With 10 hours, 10 episodes, you have the ability to compound those hard images with soft images, to give another perspective and to build agency into these moments.

I didn’t see that TikTok video. But when our trailer released, oh my God, Twitter gathered me the hell up. “Why is Barry Jenkins profiting off our pain?” The one that got my attention was someone said, “Oh, I don’t want to see any more shows about slaves; I want positive imagery.” If you unpack that sentence, it’s saying that anything that involves my ancestors is inherently negative. That’s where I draw the line. That’s where I think this idea of erasure comes into play. I wanted to understand the comment, but I also wanted to go, “No.” I also realize people were making these comments without having seen the show, but I thought, in some ways our ancestors were wizards — not like Harry Potter. If you do the research and understand what this was, you and I even having this conversation is impossible. Even in making the show, I hope people will understand that this is just us recontextualizing our ancestors — because they’ve been contextualized.

HANNAHJONES We have not long been in control of the narrative around slavery and telling the stories. There’s a reason there are hardly any films about slave rebellions, right? There’s a reason we get taught about the French Revolution and not the Haitian Revolution. So many Black people feel demeaned and degraded by the history of slavery, of Jim Crow. But I think they feel that way because they’re taught that we just took it. That we didn’t exercise agency in ways big and small. And there’s so little of our, like, we had joy, we had love. Despite everything that was being done to us, we were fully human, but you rarely see that rendered onscreen.

Let me ask you — can you tell Black stories and somehow pretend that race and racism in America didn’t exist?

JENKINS I think you can, but the story has got to be inside, inside, inside. That’s what I love about making movies. Anything’s possible. You can [tell those stories]. But I think we have to acknowledge that this is in the foundation of the American DNA.

This is a tangent: You know ADOS [American Descendants of Slavery]? They are coming after me; “Why is a South African playing our ancestors?” Sometimes they go, “Native African American, Native Black American.” I’m like, “Your ancestors were not American” — in order to have citizenship, you have to have certain rights, certain freedoms. These people were Africans in America. If you see the way they fought and earned every right that you and I have the privilege of, then you also see, “Oh, here we go. We’re going to divide these folks: You guys immigrated, you guys were given everything.” [Black immigrants might say:] “They didn’t give us shit!” These folks, too: “Oh, this South African can play us?!” You do realize the people in the show are closer to people from the continent of Africa than they are from someone born in Detroit in 1985? We’re all connected — let’s stop putting up these barriers that all these other folks are hoping we will continue to put up. Nope.

HANNAH-JONES So going back to this ADOS question …

JENKINS Well, help me with this because it’s new to me. Native Black American? Like, what does that even mean?

HANNAH-JONES It means your mentions when this comes out are about to be crazy.

JENKINS I’m down to understand, so please help me.

HANNAH-JONES Initially, I think I felt very similar to you. I definitely believe in Pan-Africanism, the diaspora, but I also do think it’s OK to say that Black Americans are their own unique ethnic group with our own particular and specific history, of being enslaved in a majority-white country founded on these ideas of liberty. At its heart, the movement is attempting to say, “Stop lumping us all in. We do have a particular story.” Me going to Jamaica as a Black American doesn’t make me Jamaican. We understand that Jamaicans have an ethnicity, that Haitians have an ethnicity, but Black Americans have somehow been deprived of the right to have an ethnicity.

So I do understand the desire to claim a particular lineage in this country. I think [ADOS’] approach has been god-awful in terms of bringing other people into their cause. As we’ve been moving The 1619 Project into TV and film, I do think a lot about: Am I actually providing opportunities just for Black people as a race, or am I providing opportunities to the descendants of slavery? Because if you disaggregate the data, within the hierarchy, Native Black Americans, however you describe them, are still on the bottom. And there’s a reason for that. I think it is OK for Black Americans to claim a lineage and ethnicity.

JENKINS Well, I’m not saying [anything against] that, but I have three women in this cast who were born on the continent of Africa, playing characters who are either born on the continent of Africa or whose mothers were born on the continent of Africa. I don’t get the disconnect there. Talk about disconnection and erasure — are we trying to sever ourselves completely from our ancestors?

HANNAH-JONES Well, no, you’re asking me to defend what they said on your Twitters, which I didn’t say, but what I am saying is I do think that there is something to be said about not dismissing Black people in this country who descended from United States slavery wanting to have an ethnicity, instead of this catch-all umbrella group. Because when a South African moves to the United States, they’re South African, right? A Ghanaian moves to the U.S., they’re Black and Ghanaian. They’re able to claim that ethnicity, but Black people don’t have one. A lot of people say we all came on the same slave ship. True. But all those other countries, they can claim a lineage, a country, and somehow we’re treated as if we can’t.

JENKINS “Treated as if we can’t.” You’ve got to unpack that last part for me.

HANNAH-JONES For instance, I was having this conversation with a Ghanaian American last year. I was saying maybe we do need a particular category for Black Americans who descend from American slavery. Because Black is treated as a racial group — anybody who comes from the continent of Africa is Black — but it’s also treated as our ethnic group, right? Our culture, our community. And one of the things that she said was, “I’m not Black [and] I faced discrimination.” That’s not the definition! That’s not how we define Black culture. Black culture is language, cuisine, music, dress, religion. But for us, we just get flattened. They’re defining us by descending from Africa and facing racism. That is not Black culture, that is what white people have done. And there is a Black American culture.

JENKINS Right. And I’m not talking about Black American culture. This “Native” part is the part that sort of bumps me. This complete severing from the continent is where I bumped. They haven’t come out to me on anything else except this thing. There has got to be a way to figure out this middle stretch of the argument.

I do want to talk about one little bit, because you know more about the subject than most folks. So Kanye West went on the TMZ, and he said, “Slavery was a choice.” You remember that?

HANNAH-JONES Yeah, of course.

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Jovan Adepo in a scene from
HBO’s Watchmen.
Mark Hill/HBO

JENKINS So we were in preproduction when that happened. I’m always trying to go, “How do I understand what this person is saying?” Because I remember being a kid and we were like, “Oh, if I was a slave, I’d have been out of the house, I’d have ran, they’d have to kill me,” you know, the dumb shit you say as a kid. I thought, “Is that what he’s saying?”

Then I tried to unpack it, what choices that my ancestors had. Doing this research, you understand how militaristic this system was, whether the weaponry or communication — if everyone had taken up arms, everyone had rebelled, everyone would have perished. It was just such a virulent system, such a well-oiled system.

These people were herbalists. They could have systematically wasted themselves away, if they wanted to, if they decided life wasn’t worth living — but there were children everywhere. I thought, “Oh, the choice was to live and protect these children,” because somehow they had faith that, eventually, those children would beget children who would not be under the yoke of slavery and who could perfect themselves as citizens of this country or people of this world.

So in the show, we have children everywhere. As you go on, you realize it’s kind of about parenting. I decided this show is about honoring what I think is the greatest act of collective parenting the world has ever seen. Two decades later, there were men born into slavery, who witnessed atrocities and horrors of fatalities, who were sitting in Congress, actively trying to work through legislation — as you have said — to help make this democracy a better democracy. How was that possible? Through the greatest act of collective parenting the world has ever seen.

HANNAH-JONES You know, I never thought about it that way. I understood we survived on collective parenting. This is why our kinship ties are not necessarily blood. It’s why we have so many cousins and aunties and that less formal family structure. We had no choice. We were constantly having to remake family, expand family and take care of each other — another thing we don’t get credit for. But I didn’t think about this collective act of parenting as a community, and that is true. I don’t know if I’m going to give Kanye the credit that you are, but you’re a kinder person than me. But what I will say is my favorite Langston Hughes poem is this poem called “Mother to Son.” It is an enslaved mother writing to a progeny that she won’t live to see.

And she talks about everything that she had to go through, because she carried inside of her the seed of the coming free. That’s what I think about all the time, is what we thought of as submission or weakness was actually the greatest act of resistance, to survive. Black survival, despite everything that we’ve been through, is the greatest gift. Every Black person grows up hearing that we are the strongest people in the world, and it always sounded nice, but I’ve come to realize that’s probably true. To be marched from the interior of Africa on a 500-mile journey, survive that, survive being in the slave castles for weeks and weeks and weeks. Survive then being brought across the middle passage, where 40 percent die. Survive slavery. Survive Jim Crow. You are strong people! I don’t know if there could be a stronger people in the world. If we were taught to think about it in that way, I think we could rid ourselves of this collective shame about the fact that our ancestors were once enslaved.

I want to ask you a question about the moment that we’re in, where Americans seemed more primed and interested in excavating the period of slavery than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. At the same time, there’s also a huge effort to try to suppress that learning: There are bills being introduced in states across the country to prohibit the teaching of not just The 1619 Project, but critical race theory — the people who write the bills don’t even know what it is — to teach anti-racism, to teach history that’s divisive. So can you talk about what it’s like to release a series like this in a period where there’s both this great interest, but also this intensive backlash against talking about slavery and the American story?

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Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, which Jenkins feels is part of the storytelling wave inspired by “seeing that symbol in the White House Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

JENKINS You know, these projects take so long to come to fruition. We made the show over the last four years when “Make America great again” was the dominating statement in the public culture, yet [interest] must have been seeded the previous eight years, when a Black man was in the White House. So many of these projects, whether it’s Watchmen, Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, Underground — maybe seeing that symbol in the White House made us all feel like, “OK, this is the time.” Now, this country, the world, was ready to acknowledge the true, full facet of this history, and of our role in building this history.

Yet at the same time, I think there’s been this pushback, because things open and then they contract. We’re in this great contraction right now. It makes me more compassionate to people who feel like maybe they aren’t ready or they don’t want to see things like this, but it also strengthens me in knowing that, no, because there’s so much pushback, we have to push forward, put these things into the public consciousness. Otherwise, people are going to very conveniently forget and very conveniently double down on this failure to acknowledge.

HANNAH-JONES This work is very emotionally difficult. You’re telling the story of your own ancestors, so there’s not an ability to detach. Can you talk about how you dealt with the emotional nature of this work?

JENKINS Yeah, I kind of didn’t! I thought, you know, “I’m a real smart cat. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, there’s a crew, there are actors, and I know exactly what we’re doing. And I know that nothing I’m going to deal with is even remotely comparable to what my ancestors dealt with.” And yet we’re in the same actual spaces.

I do believe that somehow, you know, [we were on] the same soil, and it would catch up to me. There was a day when I just walked myself off set and said nothing to nobody — which is very expensive on a show this big. When I’m not present, nothing happens. There was another day we had a guidance counselor. She tapped me and then pulled me off my own set. I said, “Yo, you can’t pull me off set, man! I’ve got to be strong for the crew. They see me talking to you, man, they go, ‘Something is wrong.'” She was like, “Yeah, you’ve got to be strong for them, but who’s going to be strong for you when you break down?” And so we had a little session, I unleashed some things, and then I got back to it.

But I felt this responsibility. And there’s been a lot of talk about sacrifice, very heinously in regard to the [Derek] Chauvin trial and the murder of George Floyd. In this case, our ancestors sacrificed by continuing to live through all this degradation. There was something about really understanding that, and I’m walking around these sets and literally seeing my ancestors — I can hug them. It was cool to be there and realize, “Yes, my ancestors were enslaved, but let’s push past that. They were blacksmiths, they were midwives. They were herbalists, they were spiritualists.” Reaffirming that every day, it’s sort of built up almost like this muscle layer where eventually I understood, OK, I’m running this long marathon. And when the show is done, I get to hand the baton to someone the same way Nikole Hannah-Jones handed it to me when she finished The 1619 Project. In that way, I got my wind up and I was ready to go.

HANNAH-JONES Thank you for your powerful work. I’m so excited to be working in the same time period as you.

JENKINS You too, boss lady, you too.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.