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Joi McMillon and Onnalee Blank, editor and supervising sound editor/rerecording mixer, respectively, on Barry Jenkins’ powerful The Underground Railroad, are featured in a new episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s weekly “Behind the Screen” series.
The Underground Railroad, Amazon’s original series based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, follows Cora Randall, played by Thuso Mbedu, as a slave who flees her Georgia plantation. “Thuso was already a bright shining star in her own, right, in South Africa. And so this is kind of her introduction to American audiences,” says McMillon as she discusses editing the series. “I was just blown away by what she was able to give to the character Cora. So nuanced, so focused.”
Blank described how she aimed to make the series sound unique — “more like a Southern show meets a horror movie, meets a Twin Peaks vibe meets something different that has its own name.”
She was unable to travel for sound recording due to the pandemic but reached out to Florida-based Watson Woo who recorded sounds of the area. “There’s 17-year cicadas that were coming through Florida at this exact time. So he camped out in the Everglades for three nights and he put microphones all up in the trees and he got a whole soundscape of anything that could possibly be used, walking through a swamp. He got chased by an alligator.”
The series work also involved recorded a 1835 steam train “that was being moved from one museum to another museum. That was going to be the last run that this train was ever going to do,” Blank relates. “There was still an attached black slave car to that train and the fact that you can still go and see that really makes you think, this wasn’t very long ago and this is really, really disturbing to see.”
Of what she hopes viewers will take away when they reflect on the series, McMillon says, “you have to know where you came from in order to get where you’re going. And I think the importance of telling stories, not only telling our stories in our history, but telling them in this way, is acknowledging that our past did happen. But these people were resilient and they never lost hope. I think Barry did such a good job of shining a light on the humanity and the dignity that these people had to possess in order to keep going.
“I think that’s the biggest takeaway from this series — the importance to not dehumanize a group of people who survived in spite of, but to shine a light on the humanity and dignity of these people that survived through something that a lot of people could have lost hope,” she continues. “A lot of people could have given up, but they decided to keep going. And I think that’s something that should definitely be celebrated and remembered.”
McMillon has known Jenkins since they were students at the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts and has collaborated with him on several productions, including Moonlight, for which she earned an Oscar nomination alongside editor and fellow Florida State alum Nat Sanders. With that achievement, she became the first Black woman to earn an Academy Award nomination in film editing.
Blank — who also worked with Jenkins on projects including Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk — is a five-time Emmy-winning mixer for HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Hosted by THR tech editor Carolyn Giardina, “Behind the Screen” is a weekly series that features conversations with cinematographers, composers, editors, visual effects supervisors and other artists behind the making of motion pictures and series.
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