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Two Black characters sit by an open window with their heads together in Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad

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With every new story, director Barry Jenkins argues for hope

The director of Moonlight and The Underground Railroad keeps reaching for connection

Photo: Amazon Studios

At first glance, the epic 10-hour series The Underground Railroad seems to operate counter to filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ hope-inducing repertoire. Nobody puts Black love on the screen the way Jenkins does, and that’s because the Best Picture-winning filmmaker loves every facet of Blackness, from the luminescent beauty of Black skin to the therapeutic joys Black folks find in each other. But what beauty exists in a slave narrative? What joy? The Underground Railroad appears antithetical to the hallmarks of Jenkins’ past works.

Yet the story as rendered fits perfectly into his filmography. His series, told through romantic fairy tales, explains through a Black gaze how Black existence endures, even though it’s in a perpetual state of negotiation with its rough environments.

In The Underground Railroad, adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, two slaves from a Georgia plantation escape and head for freedom. Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) find passage on the Underground Railroad. In this magical-realist story, it’s a literal system of tracks and trains criss-crossing the South. In pursuit: the cruel slave-catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), and his trusted sidekick, a Black child named Homer (Chase Dillon). While the poetic 10-episode series depends on fantasy elements to outline the historical traumas of slavery, the show also refines the most recurrent theme in Jenkins’ career.

Like Cora’s westward journey on the Underground Railroad, the other stories Jenkins has told stretch across America. His debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, takes place in a quickly gentrifying San Francisco. Moonlight establishes a groove in Liberty City, Miami. If Beale Street Could Talk gives voice to Harlem, New York. But among the disparate climates and regions, the lifeblood of Jenkins’ cinema flows through one consistent vein: the idea of Black lovers torn from each other by their hostile surroundings. Whether they’re facing gentrification, homophobia, racial profiling, or slavery, Jenkins precisely dissects the systematic obstacles to their relationships, sealing his romantic fantasies with a traumatic lacre. His stories exhibit how the figurative light that fills Black lives survives erasure by systematic obstacles.

Meeting and parting

The Black leads of Medicine for Melancholy dance together in a crowd, smiling at each other Photo: IFC Films

Jenkins’ first film, Medicine for Melancholy, the lone original screenplay among the director’s major works, delicately probes the displacement and erasure gentrification wreaks on Black folks. Taking place over one day in San Francisco, the narrative begins with Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) waking up the morning after a party at a friend’s modern luxe home. They aren’t a couple: Micah is recently single, and Jo has a white boyfriend who’s currently away on business. Their previous night together was just a one-night stand between two people who don’t even remember each other’s names. Though they go their separate ways, fate brings them back together: Jo forgets her wallet in the cab they shared, and Micah uses the information to find her on MySpace before returning her lost item.

Unlike other romantic pairings from Jenkins’ later films, Micah and Jo aren’t soulmates. While they ultimately spend the day together, exploring the Museum of the African Diaspora and engaging in sensual sex at Micah’s modest apartment, their environment breaks the film’s romantic fantasy by unearthing their deepest divide: how they see the personhood of Black folks.

A sense of loss pervades Micah, and not just because his white girlfriend left him. San Francisco is gentrifying. He aims his anger at the impending anti-Black displacement on Jo, who isn’t so much post-racial as she is comfortable in her present life. In Medicine for Melancholy, as Michael Boyce Gillespie says in his non-fiction novel Film Blackness, “There is a ceaseless oscillation between being and becoming, a cycling of subjectivity that is perpetually driven by history, culture, and power.” James Laxton’s desaturated photography illustrates the point: whenever the couple discuss race, the color drains from the frame. It’s further elucidated in the vérité housing-rights meeting and the later hipster-club scene.

Both sequences pose Micah and Jo as spellbound Black observers in a sea of physical and metaphorical Black erasure. These outside forces let Jenkins craft the dream of Micah and Jo as interlocked soulmates. But their changing environment, the altering of the Bay Area to an upper-class, white-dominated space, has a devastating effect on Micah and Jo. Micah, who clings to his memories of the formerly diverse city, can’t help but bluntly ask Jo: “Why the fuck you got to date some white guy?” They can’t agree on what’s important about their own identities or place in the world, which shatters their amorous dream. Even with the end of their fairy-tale, however, as Jo bikes away from Micah’s apartment in the quiet morning hours, the low stakes of their encounter let the audience explore their debate without feeling dread or despair.

Being and becoming

Two Black boys face each other in Moonlight Photo: A24

Moonlight, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, is focused on a different environmental erasure, this time fueled by homophobia. Chiron (played at different ages by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland) call Liberty City, Florida home. The childhood friends grew up in a neighborhood beset by a crack epidemic, partly maintained by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) a father-figure for Chiron, in lieu of his turbulent relationship with his mother.

When Chiron and Kevin are children, their hyper-masculine surroundings react to their presence in radically different ways. Kevin performs the ritualistic tasks of proving his manhood to the other boys by doling out violence. He becomes the king of a “game” called Knock Down, Stay Down, where he punches victims until they can’t stand up. While in high school, he also brags to Chrion about his sexual exploits with girls. Consequently, the local bullies accept Kevin. They violently reject Chiron, though, first by chasing him into abandoned crack dens, then by calling him “faggot,” and later by preying on him after school.

Similar to Medicine for Melancholy, Moonlight operates around the difficulty of being and becoming. While teaching Chiron how to swim, Juan shares how an old lady once told him, “In moonlight, Black boys look blue.” The being is the fact of his existence: Chiron is Black. He is a boy. The becoming is the change: In a different light, he might be blue. In the future, he might identify as gay. Juan’s assessment succinctly explains the arc of Blackness that’s present in Jenkins’ work: The stability of the communal spirit residing in Black folks, and the ways the idea of Blackness is consistently evolving.

Chiron’s evolving self-image, and the discovery of his sexual identity, moves in a similar fashion thematically and visually. Jenkins uses an evocative visual blend of aesthetic formalism and potent reality, as Chiron drastically shifts his appearance from his adolescent years to his teenage tenure, and into his muscular adulthood. Though Kevin isn’t as malleable, his sincerity likewise teeters between his outward machismo and his actual caring personality. It’s no wonder why, in the fabled moonlight, on a Florida beach, Kevin and Chiron become intimate. In their first tentative sexual encounter, their becoming alters to being, where the symbolic freedom offered by the sea allows them to freely exist as themselves.

Jenkins throws their watery independence in sharp contrast to their urban setting. Once back at school, Kevin succumbs to the pressures of the homophobic setting. A bully pressures him to “Knock Down, Stay Down” Chiron, leaving his friend bloodied. Chiron’s vicious reaction — the next day, he slams a chair across his oppressor’s back — forces him to relocate to Atlanta. There, he bows to the performative expectations of his gender: He turns to drug dealing, bulks up, and wears gold-plated fronts. While Medicine for Melancholy concerns the disintegration of a fairy-tale Black romance, Moonlight allows for a fulfilled desire. The adult Kevin and Chiron ultimately unite: Their longing eyes and charged bodies create an amalgamation of innuendos, showing how Black love can survive the harshest environment.

The subjective world

The leads of If Beale Street Could Talk face each other, smiling, in a park at night Photo: Annapurna Pictures

In the opening line of If Beale Street Could Talk, Tish (Kiki Layne) says, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.” In Jenkins’ adaption of James Baldwin’s groundbreaking novel, set in Harlem, New York, she and Fonny (Stephan James) make up the quintessential Jenkins couple. Like Kevin and Chiron, they’re childhood friends who learn of their shared affections in adulthood. Moonlight operates on a wish-fulfilment register with a fable-style ending, allowing Chiron one last chance to attain true happiness, but If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t leave viewers to imagine the happily-ever-after. Instead, it posits a fairy-tale romance fated for tragedy.

In the film’s opening, the young lovers descend the stairs into an Edenic New York City park. Splashes of vibrant azure and happy canary yellow paint their bashful glances. As opposed to the blue illumination that gave Moonlight its amorphous glow, the luminescent sunlight imbues the idyllic Fonny and Tish with an innocent aura. Their seemingly destined future together is upended when a woman misidentifies Fonny as her rapist. The young man lands in prison, awaiting either his family uncovering enough evidence to free him, or the extralegal justice system to inevitably convict him.

By telling a nonlinear story, which weaves the pair’s burgeoning passion into the desperation of Fonny’s wretched situation, If Beale Street Could Talk mixes a fabled yet nightmarish landscape. Just as Medicine for Melancholy uses the reality of San Francisco’s changing urban landscape to complicate Micah and Jo’s fairy-tale love story, the visual language of If Beale Street Could Talk allows historical truths to interject into the couple’s whirlwind affair. An early montage of striking black-and-white photographs, displaying the plight of urban decay and police brutality, for instance, briefly suspends the lush palette coloring this fantasy. For every moment of peace given to Fonny and Tish — their dancing at restaurants, the delicate consummation of their relationship at Fonny’s apartment, their discovery of a place where they can live — the truths of their space and time break the spell.

Jenkins often shoots his films as though the characters are manifesting their environments. In Medicine for Melancholy, whenever Micah speaks about race, the onscreen color fluctuates. In Moonlight, it’s the sound design: Sounds of ocean waters accompany Chiron’s freest moments. In If Beale Street Could Talk, the characters’ subjectivity alters two people: The first happens during a discussion between Fonny and his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). Nicholas Britell’s bracing score, Joi McMillon’s immersive editing, and Henry’s incredible vulnerability suspends time and place as Daniel, in unflinching detail, explains his haunting experience in prison. The other conceit affects Tish: When she’s happy, the sunlight shines brightest. When she’s sad, there’s no sunlight to speak of.

And yet the light inside Fonny and Tish never wavers. The final scene demonstrates that, as Tish visits Fonny in jail, bringing their son along. They say grace. They break the proverbial bread. They dream of a better day, a freer day. Even though their racist environment has physically separated them, their Black love endures.

The vicious original sin

William Jackson Harper and Thuso Mbedu as Royal and Cora in The Underground Railroad Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon

Jenkins’ limited series The Underground Railroad heightens the effect characters intertwined in romance have on their surroundings and vice versa, to almost world-breaking levels. For one, as Gillespie notes, in Medicine for Melancholy, gentrification shares clear linkages to America’s imperialist roots. If Micah and Jo exist on the contemporary end of the spectrum, then Cora, navigating the vicious original sin of slavery, occupies the first, most extreme dashes on America’s anti-Black timeline.

Cora shares other commonalities with Jenkins’ past protagonists. Akin to Micah mourning his San Francisco and his past relationship, Chiron missing his mother’s warmth, and Tish feeling her forced separation from Fonny, Cora has a spiritual hole in her. Like Chiron, she comes to despise her mother’s absence. A decade before the events of the series, Cora’s mother ran away under the cover of night from the Georgia plantation, leaving Cora behind, or so she believes. Her sense of loss, her anger that’s “the worst kind of fuel,” as Ridgeway calls it, changes how she sees her place in the world.

For example, Caesar, her first intimate partner, inspires her to escape to a local underground railway station. Jenkins gives her a tactile bond with her environment: Upon seeing the tracks for the first time, she kneels, lays her head against the steel rails, and taps them to prove they exist. Again, Jenkins defines the scene through Cora’s subjectivity. The actuality of an authentic railroad with a genuine train doesn’t just layer an alt-history frame over the historical metaphor of the underground railroad. The magical glow of the locomotive, the way the dust dances around in its light with fairy-like abandon, establishes Cora’s magical-realist perspective.

The restoration of Cora’s personhood happens through the lens of love, but not overnight. In South Carolina, amid fancy balls and storybook dancing, she and Caesar fall for each other. For brief moments, we even see a smile break across her face. But Cora isn’t totally free — like other Jenkins characters, she’s just becoming. And she constantly feels the reality of slavery, still enacted only a few short miles away. The early bliss she feels with Caesar eventually crumbles, because slavery and its practice of forced separation do not abate. But the rupture between Cora and Caesar isn’t caused by a purchase of sale sending one of them downriver. It’s instigated by Ridgeway’s arrival. Cora must abandon Caesar, creating another spiritual hole in herself.

The Underground Railroad is a sprawling tapestry of visually disparate territories, seen through the subjectivity of Cora’s gaze. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Jenkins explains, “Cora was manifesting the nature of each state she was coming into. She gets to North Carolina, and it’s damned. It’s blocked because she’s blocked.” In Tennessee, she wants to die, so a river appears. In Indiana, she needs to escape, so a cave opening appears. Her manifestations carry over to the series’ sound design as well. The echoed clanking of trains is never far off. Britell’s incredible score swings madly through distinct tracks: the heartbreaking strains of “Caesar’s Theme,” the sharpened dread of “It Must be Searched,” the lively jaunt “Valentine Trio No. 2” — drastically reshapes the series’ tone from episode to episode.

In Indiana, Cora finds love one last time with a freedman, Royal (William Jackson Harper). Their romance harks to Jenkins’ past couplings like Chiron and Kevin, Fonny and Tish. There’s an empathy and gentleness between them, as though they wished each other into existence so they might feel less alone.

The loss of Caesar and her mother still haunt her, though, causing her to initially push the charming Royal away. Recalling South Carolina, she can’t fully feel safe. She might be free in theory, but legally, she is not. And the ways she oscillates between brief instances of peace and pain recall how she consistently fights both being and becoming free. Nevertheless, their affection grows amid the rolling idyllic Midwestern countryside of Valentine Farm. In an ardent scene, Royal looks at the camera head-on and tells Cora he loves her, a Jenkins visual motif also used in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. They seem fated for each other, but the facts of their surroundings upend them. Royal is killed by the slave catcher Ridgeway, and Cora later murders Ridgeway with Royal’s gun in kind.

As Angelica Jade Bastién explains in her incisive review of The Underground Railroad, “The series is at its best when observing the ways Black people find love among the psychic, emotional, and physical wreckage of slavery.” The series’ final scenes confirm that. Following the battle at Valentine Farm, where the forces of racism and slavery destroy a paradisial Black-owned spread, Cora saves a young girl from the hellscape, fleeing with her through a disused railroad cave. On the other side, Cora takes the okra seeds she’s been safeguarding during her travels, and plants them for the next passersby — hopefully, Black travelers following in her footsteps. The act is a generational investment, a belief in the indistinguible light Black folks carry.

The quartet of Medicine for Melancholy, Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Underground Railroad feel like they represent a first thematic movement for Jenkins’ still-developing career. They ask their protagonists to bear witness to present crimes, to sort through past traumas, and to discover their place in the harsh American landscape. Critically, they explore the dehumanization caused by slavery, gentrification, homophobia, and the prison-industrial complex through the lens of Black love to inform how African-Americans continue to exist and thrive, even under centuries of abuses and usurpations. Jenkins’ uncanny ability to depict outright personhood, rather than abject anguish, makes his message of hope and positivity totemic for the Black gaze.