'Moonlight' director Barry Jenkins heads to Amazon for 'The Underground Railroad'

Jenkins' film 'Moonlight,' which was praised for depicting stories not often seen in movies, won the Oscar best picture award for 2017. His next project promises to bring a similarly seldom-told story to the small screen.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Barry Jenkins arrives at the Oscars in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, 2017.

On the heels of an Oscar win for "Moonlight," director Barry Jenkins is turning his attention to the small screen for an Amazon TV adaptation of the acclaimed novel “The Underground Railroad.”

Colson Whitehead's 2016 novel depicts the life of Cora, an African-American slave who decides to attempt to travel to freedom via the Underground Railroad, which in Mr. Whitehead’s novel is a real system of trains. The book won the National Book Award for fiction. 

According to Variety, Mr. Jenkins is set to both direct and write the TV series based on Whitehead’s work. “Moonlight” was the second feature film that Jenkins directed and he has branched out into television before now, helming an episode of the Netflix series “Dear White People,” which is set to debut on April 28.

Amazon's deal with Jenkins, so soon after he earned one of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' top awards, is further evidence that small-screen content providers like Amazon, Netflix, and HBO can reel in A-list names with big-time clout. Jenkins, who is known for taking risks in terms of selecting projects that break from traditional storyline templates and subject matter, praised Amazon for its investment in the "Underground Railroad."

“Preserving the sweep and grandeur of a story like this requires bold, innovative thinking and in Amazon we’ve found a partner whose reverence for storytelling and freeness of form is wholly in line with our vision,” he said, according to Variety.

Jenkins’s movie “Moonlight” was praised for bringing to the big screen stories and characters that critics say are seldom depicted there. “The story of a young boy growing up poor in Liberty City, with a mom addicted to crack and a repressed attraction to other boys, is remarkable not only for its subject matter but for its lush visual palate and dreamlike aesthetic,” Time writer Eliza Berman wrote. “As America emerges from a year that saw frequent headlines about young black men killed by police, and from a month in which the shift in power has many fearing for their rights, audiences have found profound urgency in ‘Moonlight.’ ”

Ms. Berman suggested to Jenkins during an interview that “it seems like one of the reasons the movie has caught on so much is that many people have an opportunity to see themselves in a way that maybe they’ve never been able to walk into a movie theater or turn on a TV and see” and Jenkins told her, “I get these messages from total strangers all the time, saying just that. They never thought that they would walk into a theater and, as you said, see themselves onscreen.” 

And following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, in which only white actors were nominated for all the Academy Awards acting prizes two years in a row, the 2017 Oscars included the movies “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Fences” all being nominated for best picture, among various other prizes. “Hidden Figures” in particular also did very well financially and became the fourteenth-highest-grossing movie of 2016.

Newsweek writer Tufayel Ahmed felt “Hidden” was also a good step forward in the story that it brought to the screen. “By presenting black female characters as highly skilled scientists and mathematicians, the film is a refreshing change from historical dramas which often feature black characters purely as housemaids or slaves,” Mr. Ahmed wrote. 

Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Monitor that he was happy about the discussion surrounding the lack of past diversity but that the talk had to continue. “We’ve got to keep this issue on the front burner,” he said.

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