Barry Jenkins Doesn’t Want You to Feel Bad About Skipping ‘The Underground Railroad’ (But He Wouldn’t Mind if You Picked Up the New Criterion Box Set)

It seemed like it couldn’t miss.

A 10-episode prestige streaming series, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller by Colson Whitehead that imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal subterranean transit line and wholly directed by Barry Jenkins, the visionary filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” But when “The Underground Railroad” was released on Prime Video in the early days of summer 2021, it felt like it all but disappeared. Part of this had to do with Amazon’s baffling decision to release it in one big chunk; this was the kind of series that deserved to be digested – and discussed! – week-to-week. And while the series went on to pick up several accolades, including a pair of primetime Emmy nominations, it has largely been left out of the cultural conversation in the years since it was initially released.

Until now.

“The Underground Railroad” has recently been inducted into the Criterion Collection, the home video label “dedicated to publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements” (according to the mission statement on their site). The luxurious four-disc set feels like the perfect tribute to the series that should have garnered more attention and allows it a level of prestige and credibility that, for whatever reason, passed it by the first time around. It’s also 50% off right now at Barnes & Noble, part of their annual Criterion sale, which is one of the most important holidays in film fanatic circles.

When “The Underground Railroad” premiered on Prime Video in May 2021, Jenkins headed to the desert. “No cell phone, no wifi,” he told TheWrap. “I was gone that whole weekend.” When he got back, he had seen that the show had made it onto the Nielsen streaming chart and that people were confused about why it had been released in a single gulp. “I heard those things. I knew those things. But it’s just, it’s different than a movie where you have box office. And also Amazon’s metrics are different than Netflix’s metrics, so I didn’t really know where to look,” Jenkins said. “But I did feel that once I got back on social media that the show wasn’t being talked about.”

Jenkins insists that you should “not feel bad for me.” “I got to do exactly what I wanted in the making of this show, which is a very, very privileged thing to have,” he said. He reiterates that Amazon was “hyper supportive” of the series.

Internally, there was a debate about how to release the show. At the time, the weekly model, utilized through decades of linear broadcasting, was still frowned upon. The team wondered if maybe two or three episodes a week was a good way to split the difference. “Looking back on history, yeah, that probably would have been a better option. But the only thing that would have truly upset me if the show that got released was different than the show I turned in,” Jenkins said.

The show is heavy, for sure, and Jenkins said that Amazon could have requested certain elements be changed or removed following its initial appearance on the platform, “to see if it gets better metrics.” “They didn’t do that. And so in that sense, I’m a very privileged filmmaker,” Jenkins said. “I got to do exactly what I wanted. I released a show that I’m very proud of. It’s always nice to finish first. But that just wasn’t the case ratings-wise with the show.”

With its release on the Criterion Collection and a retrospective screening in Berkeley this spring, Jenkins assures that “the show lives on.” And that means something huge to him. “For me personally, the show we’re talking about, it’s the greatest version of me as a person and as a storyteller,” Jenkins explained. Maybe he’ll make something else down the line that will give him that same feeling, “but nothing touches this.”

Jenkins, who describes himself as a “physical media guy” (he was scarred from selling all of his CDs with the advent of music streaming services), began the process of getting “The Underground Railroad” inducted into the collection when he was working on “Medicine for Melancholy” with Criterion (His debut feature made it into the collection last year). Jenkins was confused. He remembers telling the Criterion team, “But ‘Underground Railroad’ is at a streamer that can’t go in the collection, right?’” They replied, “No, of course, what are you talking about?” (Among other things, Criterion has released Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology of films, also a Prime Video joint venture, plus Netflix movies like “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “Okja” and “The Power of the Dog.”)

For the Criterion release, Jenkins was able to include deleted scenes, commentary tracks (recorded in the order that they made the episodes), “The Gaze” (a beautiful short film by Jenkins), a graphic novel version of “Genesis,” an episode that they didn’t get to film, and a contemporaneous electronic press kit.

“Another reason why my relationship to the show was different than the audience’s relationship to the show is that this show was impossible; it should not exist. We had this this budget extremity crises a week before we started making the show, where we learned the show was on track to be many dozens of millions of dollars over budget. And so we were just going to get shut down,” Jenkins said. “And yet we persevered and made the show by making quite a few sacrifices and being nimble.” Since they got to record the commentaries in the order that they filmed the show, Jenkins and his collaborators “get to tell that story.” “That was just something else that I thought was really cool, special and important and really nice to have the opportunity to do so … I’m super stoked about this release.”

The “Genesis” episode, Jenkins added, was the “very first casualty” of the budget snafu. “We hadn’t started shooting at all, which is the only reason why we were able to withstand this. It was just an error. It was a mistake, a really big mistake that we made.”

“The Underground Railroad” also allowed him to spread his wings as a filmmaker. He got to work with Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects company formed by George Lucas for the original “Star Wars,” on a particularly difficult shot. And the scale and scope of the show allowed Jenkins to hopscotch between genres and styles, in a way that would have been nearly impossible anywhere else. Of the first “Tennessee” episode, Jenkins noted, “we’re in a fucking Cormac McCarthy novel,” while the “North Carolina” episode is “like a ‘Rosemary’s Baby’-style contained horror film,” and “Indiana” “becomes ‘Braveheart’ for a minute.” “But that’s fun, though, because we didn’t try to fold ourselves into those genres,” Jenkins said.

He then returned to the question of people not watching the show initially, saying, “If there’s anything that was disappointing about more people not watching the show, is there were people who watched and loved ‘Moonlight,’ who just didn’t have time for ‘The Underground Railroad.’ I think it would have been really cool for them to have seen that aesthetic applied to you know, Cormac McCarthy, you know, in the first ‘Tennessee’ episode, I think, would have been really fucking cool.”

His next project as a director will be so in people’s face that it will be impossible to avoid. He is directing the sequel/prequel to the 2019 version of “The Lion King,” entitled “Mufasa: The Lion King.” It’s out in theaters (everywhere) this Christmas.

“I just talked a little bit about how difficult ‘The Underground Railroad’ was, this calamity we had, the budget, all this stuff puts a lot of stress on your body. I needed something that was just at a different pace, not-so-young man that I am now,” Jenkins said. “I knew it was going to be long, but that was one of the things that I really loved about it. Long and engaging. But the movie is dope. We are almost done. And I’m stoked for people to see it.” And maybe, spurred by “The Lion King,” they’ll want to look back at Jenkins’ resume … and pick up a copy of “The Underground Railroad’s” Criterion Collection box set.

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