The Epic Journey to ‘The Underground Railroad’

“Dealing with what we saw will probably stick with me for a very long time, if not forever,” he added. “But I hope these images stick with the people who see this show, too, because it’s important for us all to recognize our history.”

‘The motto of Black America’

On my last night at the farmhouse in Newborn, Laxton and Jenkins were outside setting up a shot. A blinding white overhead light, cast against the still, black sky, made it seem as if we were being abducted by aliens. Inside, I had a conversation with McMillon, the editor, about the deeper meaning of the project. We were interrupted at one point by the farm’s owner, who had been on-hand for the shoot and who wanted to show us a photo of one of the farm’s old residents — the daughter of slaves who had belonged to the owner’s family.

Traveling across Georgia during production, such reminders of the not-so-distant past were common. The locations manager, Alison A. Taylor, told me she had felt disoriented by the experience of driving past houses flying large Confederate flags on her way to set. In Madison, where some of the shooting took place, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had thrown a barbecue months before.

McMillon, who worked with Jenkins to sculpt the series during and after production, described what it felt like to filter the horror and possibility of American history through a Black lens.

Is there a different kind of motivation that comes into play given the nature of this story?

MCMILLON Yeah, because we represent so much more than ourselves. You do feel, not the pressure to succeed, but the pressure to represent in the best way possible. You don’t want anyone embarrassed to claim you. I think one of the things that we’ve all taken into account is, when you tell stories like this, it’s so much bigger than us.

What do you want people to get out of the show?

MCMILLON The idea of “in spite of.” I feel like that is the motto for most Black people in America. Survival in spite of — to find love and laughter and joy in spite of your circumstances. With Cora’s journey, the odds are against her from the beginning, and so much of what she goes through is heartbreaking. But, in spite of all that, there’s still this hope of a better life, of survival, of making meaningful connections and leaving a lasting impression on this earth.

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