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Joi McMillon — the first Black woman to earn an Oscar nomination in film editing (alongside fellow editor Nat Sanders for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight) — recently reteamed with her Florida State classmate Jenkins for his powerful Amazon limited series The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The 10-episode series follows Cora Randall, played by Thuso Mbedu, a slave who flees her Georgia plantation using an underground train system. McMillon, who led a team of editors that also included Alex O’Flinn and Daniel Morfesis, spoke to THR about her biggest challenges, exploring Black mental health, and using Cora as a throughline.
How did you approach the 10-episode arc?
The thing we wanted to be sure of was translating how inventive the novel is to the screen. Our approach was one episode at a time — what’s the tone of the episode, and how should it flow together so that when you step back and look at all 10 episodes as a whole, it makes sense? Even though chapter one (“Georgia”) and chapter 10 (“Mabel”) were the episodes that I worked on first, having the ability to go back and being informed of how the episodes were going to play out was really great. I think it was actually “Mabel” (which follows Cora’s mother) that set the stage of what the show was supposed to be, because the tone of that chapter is so specific.
That was the episode that when it came together, Barry and I were like, “OK, this is what the show is.” In “Mabel,” the score is very minimal. The sound design really shines. And I think the edits are very careful because the performances were so nuanced. We never wanted to take away or detract from anything that these actors were giving us. It’s such a delicate episode. One of the reasons I really appreciate “Mabel” is that it talks about mental health, which is one of the things that I don’t think a lot of Black people are given the space to talk about. There’s a disconnect because we were kind of taught you just take on the weight of the world and just forge ahead. But you should, as a Black person, have the ability to seek out care for mental health, because you’re carrying a lot of weight of what it’s like to live in this country as a Black person.
What was the most challenging episode to cut?
[The ninth episode,] “Indiana Winter.” The challenging thing about that episode was to see something that a community has built up so beautifully, and then to see the destruction of it was so devastating. The challenging section was that [attack at the] church scene, and to convey that devastation. At first when I was tackling it, I was making quick cuts … kind of action-sequence editing. And I remember Barry watching it and being like, “Take your time.” Because if you’ve ever been in a car accident or if you’ve ever experienced something so traumatic, it does feel like time slows down. And the thing that was so sad is these people are trapped in this church and they’re just so vulnerable. One of the things that’s so stressful are those silences between [the assailants] loading the shotguns. It was one of those sections where sound design and editing really emerged and merged together. We wanted to convey that to the audience and have you feel like you’re in that church.
Would you talk about telling the story through Cora’s range of emotions?
Thuso was outstanding. If she wasn’t believable and wasn’t actually grounding the audience in her point of view, the show just wouldn’t have worked. One of the things that she had the ability of doing is being so vulnerable one moment, and then so stubborn and strong at another moment. As an editor, I found it super helpful to be able to pull from these performances when crafting the moment of her finally letting her guard down and feeling comfortable and safe, and then the next scene on guard. There’s so much happening with her eyes. Throughout the series, we kept checking in with Cora, because that’s your throughline. And we wanted to make sure that, even though we made stops on the way where we were introduced to these other characters and learned a little backstory on them, that we did not miss a step with Cora.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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