A month after “Moonlight” won Best Picture at the Oscars, writer and director Barry Jenkins’ next project is official. He’s adapting Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning novel, “The Underground Railroad,” as an Amazon original series.
Jenkins has been working on the project since September, a month after Whitehead’s book was released. Amazon announced Monday that it is developing a limited series for its Prime streaming service. As he did on Moonlight, Jenkins will again serve as writer and director.
It’s uncertain when “The Underground Railroad” will debut on Amazon or how many episodes it will have. Given the high-profile talent involved, it’s expected to skip Amazon’s usual pilot process and go straight to series, New York Times reported.
“The Underground Railroad” is a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, an Oprah’s Book Club 2016 selection, and was awarded a National Book Award in 2016. Published by Doubleday, it has sold over 825,000 copies in the U.S.
It tells the story of Cora, a young slave in Georgia, in her desperate bid for freedom via the Underground Railroad in the antebellum South. After escaping her Georgia plantation, Cora finds no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern earth.
Here’s an excerpt from an Amazon synopsis:
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. “The Underground Railroad” is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
This will be Jenkins’ first attempt at directing a TV series in its entirety, Variety reported. He recently directed an episode of the upcoming Netflix adaptation of the film “Dear White People,” (premiering April 28, according to Indiewire) and previously directed one episode of the PBS series “Futurestates.”
As with “Moonlight,” adapted from an original script by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins will write and direct the limited “Underground Railroad” series. The series will be executive produced by Pastel, a company co-founded by Jenkins, and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.
Jenkins co-founded Pastel with Adele Romanski and Sara Murphy to create provocative, boundary-pushing work in film, TV and more, according to an Amazon press release. In addition to developing in-house productions for Jenkins, Pastel supports diverse projects and empowers filmmakers to “further the mandate of integrity, urgency and specificity set forth by ‘Moonlight.'”
Pitt and Plan B also produced “Moonlight.” In addition to its Best Picture win, Jenkins and McCraney won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, and Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor.
Vice‘s Brandon Harris interviewed “The Underground Railroad” book’s author Whitehead in August, with this preface:
With “The Underground Railroad”, Whitehead takes on the specter of American human bondage with hints of Marquez’s magic realism, DeLillo’s insidious intelligence, and the playful postmodern systems analysis of Pynchon. His droll humor comes in smaller doses than usual—after all, it’s hard to make slavery funny.
These are some excerpts from Whitehead in his Vice interview:
Vice: Are there aspects of the book’s characters that are autobiographical?
Whitehead: I’m in most of my characters, and that includes the villains. In my better moments, I see myself in some of the more enlightened characters. You’re always putting the good and bad parts of yourself in the characters to make them real.
Vice: Did you ever think your sensibility would be admired by Oprah Winfrey?
Whitehead: Well, you hope if you do a good book, people like it. She’s picked great books. I loved “Beloved” and I loved “The Road,” and both of those influences are in this book.
Vice: Why do you think slavery is on so many people’s minds right now in culture?
Whitehead: The number of black writers, filmmakers, and TV producers aren’t huge, but there are more than there were 10 years ago. I don’t feel like there can ever be enough (slave stories) as long as there’s more ground to cover. There are many corners of African American history that have not been explored, and we have more choice over what we want to tell now.