Thuso Mbedu on the pain and glory of Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad
The actor discusses finding moments of beauty, comfort and magic within a story about slavery
By Radheyan Simonpillai
May 11, 2021
The Underground Railroad (Barry Jenkins). Premieres Friday (May 14) on Amazon Prime Video Canada.
The moments in a Barry Jenkins piece that make my heart swell always involve people holding, comforting and embracing each other. Think of the scene in Moonlight where Mahershala Ali’s Juan carries and protects a young Chiron over the ocean’s waves; or in the film’s finale when the adult Chiron, then called Black, tucks his head into his lover’s chest; or in If Beale Street Could Talk, when Fonny and Tish hold tight after making love, breathing deep in a way that makes their bodies heave in unison, finding safety in the tiny space they take up together.
“Those are scenes that Barry looks forward to,” says Thuso Mbedu, on a Zoom call with NOW. She would know. The actor cumulatively spent almost a year shooting with Jenkins on his most ambitious project yet, a 10-part limited series based on Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, which is premiering on Amazon Prime Video.
Mbedu plays Cora, a young woman who escapes slavery alongside a fellow runaway named Caesar (Aaron Pierre). Cora embarks on a journey across state lines, witnessing varied horrors committed against Black people along the way. There’s a lot of suffering in The Underground Railroad, but Jenkins’s modus operandi is to search for and latch onto those moments of beauty and affection.
“[Barry] knew how heavy Cora’s journey was,” says Mbedu, who describes the relief in those tender moments, when Cora would lay her head and find warmth against Caesar’s broad chest.
“To have Cora being held meant giving the audience an opportunity to breathe a little easier, to feel like they are being held and they can smile just as Cora smiles.”
Mbedu speaks generously and enthusiastically, describing how Jenkins works and the overwhelming emotions she felt on the set of The Underground Railroad. Mbedu is very open, unlike the extremely guarded Cora, who is in a constant state of fight or flight. Of her own accord, Mbedu refers back to her own experiences and traumas, like losing her mother at the age of four, and considers how those moments affect the way she felt during scenes of loss, love and closure in The Underground Railroad.
She also lightens the inherently heavy conversation with amusing asides about how she talks in circles, how her PR-mandated media training came in handy so conversations with press didn’t go off the rails and how she binged The Underground Railroad in a weekend against the advice of her director. To that latter point, Mbedu agrees the show is so substantial that it needs to be processed with time and considered with care. There’s artistry to be savoured but also traumatizing episodes that require healing.
“I know that Barry comes from a place where he wants to tell the story of what happened because to pretend and erase it would be doing the ancestors a great disservice,” says Mbedu, explaining why depicting graphic scenes of Antebellum-era violence was necessary.
The Underground Railroad is arriving after a steady stream of movies that capitalize on Black trauma without offering much else. Think Queen And Slim and Antebellum. Even the celebrated Judas And The Black Messiah didn’t do justice to its subject, inspirational Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, because it was too focused on the thriller mechanics that would lead to his brutal assassination. Supposedly these movies are timely. Really, they show how the people who finance movies and television don’t see the value of Black stories that don’t involve suffering.
We reached peak trauma porn last month, with the same-day streaming release of the Oscar-winning short film Two Distant Strangers and horror series Them. The former is a Groundhog Day-style short about a Black man being killed by a cop. The latter is a grotesque period piece about Black people being physically and emotionally brutalized in the foulest ways for over 10 episodes. It’s all so upsetting and tiring.
But The Underground Railroad is different.
“We’re not here showcasing brutality for the sake of getting a reaction,” says Mbedu. “When Barry shares those moments, it’s not for sensationalism. It’s a matter of giving you a peek of what happened as something that is part of a bigger journey.”
Witnessing pain in The Underground Railroad only makes the moments of warmth, joy and affection feel more immense. Mbedu speaks in awe about how Jenkins made those scenes come alive, like a maestro composing the production design, score, lighting and editing so precisely to realize the imagery only he sees in his head. On set, Jenkins would bring Mbedu pieces of the score composed by Nicholas Britell. “He would say, ‘close your eyes, this is what the scene sounds like.’”
We turn our attention to a scene in the second episode when Cora and Caesar find momentary solace in a deceptively utopian South Carolina society. They attend a regal outdoor ball, dancing in each other’s arms while her playful smile is lit by golden baubles.
“That evening was absolutely mystical,” says Mbedu. “Everybody was merry. We had the violins. We had the atmosphere itself. The crew was feeling lighter because of the nature of the space that we were in.”
Mbedu regularly refers back to the crew. She describes a connection forged over 10 months shooting, collaborating, letting off steam together and getting up in each other’s spaces. You get the sense from her recollections that if the emotions in the material affected the cast, the crew felt it too.
“You see people, you hug them, you embrace them in support,” says Mbedu, describing a dynamic on set that mirrors our favourite onscreen scenes in a Barry Jenkins’s work. “In moments when your character needs it most, we literally leaned in on each other.”
Radheyan's first assignment for NOW was reviewing the Ice Cube heist comedy First Sunday. That was back in January 2008. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Scarborough, Rad currently lives in Leslieville with his wife and two adorable kids.