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Barry Jenkins' 'The Underground Railroad' enters Criterion Collection


Barry Jenkins is one of the major American filmmakers working today. In the streaming age, he's had to chart a different path from filmmakers of the past. Take his Amazon series "The Underground Railroad," which was added to the Criterion Collection today. NPR's Marc Rivers reports.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: Even with an Oscar under Barry Jenkins' belt, getting his limited series "The Underground Railroad" into the Criterion Collection, a company that focuses primarily on curating films, feel special to him.

BARRY JENKINS: You know, I was saying to someone else, it's almost like the Criterion Collection is like the Library of Congress, you know, of movies. And so it's an incredible honor.

RIVERS: And it's even more rare to select a TV show, which might help Jenkins' series get the audience it didn't get back when it first came out on Amazon back in 2021. For many people, the most well-known moment in Barry Jenkins' career revolves around a small envelope mix-up.


JORDAN HOROWITZ: There's a mistake. "Moonlight," you guys won best picture.


WARREN BEATTY: "Moonlight" won.

RIVERS: After his 2016 drama, "Moonlight," quite dramatically won best picture at the 89th Oscars, Jenkins went on to make 2018's "If Beale Street Could Talk."


STEPHAN JAMES: (As Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt) You ready for this?

KIKI LANE: (As Tish Rivers) I've never been more ready for anything in my home life.

RIVERS: The two award-winning films established him as one of the most exciting voices working in American cinema. So it might have surprised a few moviegoers when, for his next project, he moved to television.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where do they go, the ones who run away and never return?

RIVERS: Adapted from Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Underground Railroad" imagines the secret network of abolitionists who helped enslave people reach freedom as an actual train running underground. Some critics say his work on the series displayed how he stands at the top of his field.

ANJELICA JADE BASTIEN: If I'm going to be 100, Barry Jenkins bodies his peers. And I'm not just talking about the Black ones. I'm talking about everybody.

RIVERS: Angelica Jade Bastien is a critic for New York Magazine's website, Vulture.

BASTIEN: There's something very visceral and textured about his work, like, almost like if you reached out to the screen, you wouldn't touch your TV screen. You'd touch actual flesh.

RIVERS: But despite such praise, the series didn't seem to find a big audience.

BASTIEN: I think for a lot of people, including Black people - maybe even especially Black people - slavery narratives are very uncomfortable.

RIVERS: Sean Fennessey cohosts the movie podcast "The Big Picture" for The Ringer website. He says in an era defined by near-endless options across various streaming services, even great art can get lost in the wilderness.

SEAN FENNESSEY: Some of it is just the vagaries of streaming TV, which just feels, I think, to many people, more inessential. And when people stream things on TV, they're looking to get away.

RIVERS: But this year, Jenkins will likely get his biggest audience to date with the release of Disney's "Mufasa: The Lion King."


LEBO M: (Singing in Zulu).

RIVERS: Fennessey looks at Jenkins' career, from indie darling to Disney blockbuster, as indicative of the more winding journey many filmmakers today have to take.

FENNESSEY: The opportunities for strong writing and strong points of view in the late 2010s and early 2020s were more often afforded by television or more often afforded by streamers who had the kind of disposable cash. At the same time as TV and streaming was expanding, the theatrical business was getting smaller and more and more focused on franchise storytelling.

RIVERS: When Angelica Jade Bastien first heard Jenkins was making the next "Lion King," she saw the move as a turn away from what made him unique.

BASTIEN: I felt, like, kind of pissed off. I was like, he just did one of the most astounding things I've ever seen with "The Underground Railroad." And this is what he has to do.

RIVERS: Celebrated directors like Ryan Coogler, Chloe Zhao and Rian Johnson also began their careers with smaller films before tackling big franchises. Fennessey understands the calculus.

FENNESSEY: It's a good way to say, this is going to allow me to have more freedom in my career and more choices. And it's going to be a good paycheck, and it's going to be something that a lot of people are going to see.

RIVERS: Barry Jenkins is aware of some of the criticism he's gotten on "Mufasa."

JENKINS: I just wanted something different but that still allowed me to investigate these things that I didn't realize I was obsessed with but, as my work, you know, starts to build and collect, I realize I'm obsessed with, which is the relationship between parents and their children. "Moonlight," "Beale Street," "The Underground Railroad" and now even "Mufasa: The Lion King" - they're kind of all of a piece.

RIVERS: Jenkins says he hopes to achieve the same creative fulfillment that he got on "The Underground Railroad."

JENKINS: Every project I go out on, I want to be able to finish it and look back on it and just be absolutely proud. If it was the last thing or the only thing I did, I would be proud of it.

RIVERS: And if both the Criterion Collection and Disney are calling, you're probably doing something right. Marc Rivers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "BESSIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]