Amazon’s The Underground Railroad explores one of America’s darkest moments in history that is both haunting, inspiring and brutal. It is also where Black fiction and reality collide in unbearable moments met with pure artistry. It is a love story in a time of hate. But at its essence, it is the celebration of Blackness and the strength of people determined to find a better life.
Director Barry Jenkins’ adaption of the Colson Whitehead’s prizewinning novel The Underground Railroad has viewers glued to the screen for 10 episodes, that educates viewers about the network of safe houses and allies who smuggled enslaved people from the South to the North and Canada in hopes of just being able to live.
Focusing on the journey of Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) as they escape the Randall plantation in Georgia. The show is impactful and made with love.
The Koalition spoke to editor Joi McMillion about merging fiction with reality, how sound (and lack of) affects the viewers, balancing the harsh realities of slavery with tender moments, and more.
“I count myself as being such a blessed individual to be able to collaborate with a director like Barry Jenkins. One of the things I know about Barry is that whenever he takes on a project he’s going to present it in a way that not only feels authentic but it feels inventive and a new perspective. In reading the book I could see how visually this was going to translate to the screen and I was excited being a part of not only this collaboration but presenting this series to the world in a way we’re not only depicting slavery but its effects mentally and physically on the Black community. To me, it was a necessity to tell this story because we can’t forget where we came from but present it in a way with honor and dignity that we’re proud of the struggle and the journey that brought us here today.”
Joi McMillon, the first Black woman to receive an Oscar nomination in Film Editing (for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight) — reteamed with her Florida State classmate to working on her first series. Leading a team of editors that also included Alex O’Flinn and Daniel Morfesis, to explore Black mental health by using Cora’s journey as the catalyst.
“It was interesting working on a series of this magnitude, we really wanted to focus on Cora’s journey. Thuso, our lead, did such an amazing job of not only bringing this character to life but adding texture to this character and the different layers that are suppose to be in Cora, she definitely brought to the forefront. It’s one of the things I definitely give Coleson and Barry credit for, is presenting this female character that is fully formed. She’s such a nuanced individual that has layers; a little selfish but vulnerable and guarded and also courageous and fearless. I think the way Thuso brought that character to life, there’s such an authenticity into her performance that you as an audience member are not only drawn in but you’re invested in this journey that she’s about to embark on.”
“In doing this series in ten episodes one of the things we had to pay attention to is how each episode fitted into the storyline but also making sure when you get to that final episode that Mabel (whose been woven throughout the series), there is a payoff when you finally get to the finale.”
Reflecting on a time where The Underground Railroad offered hope with a cost as Cora and Caesar risk forced sterilization and deaths, Joi credits the message of the series with keeping her and the crew going.
“I think one of the things I feel the whole crew realized is the sustainability of the creative mind. If someone had told me how long and how hard this would have been, I would have been like ‘I can’t do it.’ Understanding the necessity to tell the story but to get it right was one of the things that definitely kept us going and definitely kept us encouraging each other. I think the thing I realized about myself is that I do have it in me, to not only do it but to do it well. I think tackling ten episodes and cutting five of the ten, we were able to accomplish it but also we did it together because we had the trust and the support of one another and understanding to know what we’re taking on is not only what the world needs to watch but the experience is of value.”
“One thing I always say is, the commodity that sometimes people don’t realize is the highest value is time, it’s something you can get back. Us as artists when we create something we want it to be worth your time and that’s one of the things we hope the series is something that stays with you but is something you may want to to revisit in life because not only of its importance but because of its impact.”
To learn more about Joi’s approach to The Underground Railroad and her thoughts on her upcoming film Zola, check out the full interview above.