I just started watching Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and it is gorgeous and terrible and intense. One extraordinary thing about it is that in the midst of making this 10-hour series, Jenkins also made an hour-long, non-narrative work titled, The Gaze, and it is almost supernaturally moving. He wrote at length about it on Vimeo:
Early in production, there was a moment where I looked across the set and what I saw settled me: our background actors, in working with folks like Ms. Wendy and Mr. and Mrs. King – styled and dressed and made up by Caroline, by Lawrence and Donnie – I looked across the set and realized I was looking at my ancestors, a group of people whose images have been largely lost to the historical record. Without thinking, we paused production on the The Underground Railroad and instead harnessed our tools to capture portraits of… them.
What flows here is non-narrative. There is no story told. Throughout production, we halted our filming many times for moments like these. Moments where… standing in the spaces our ancestors stood, we had the feeling of seeing them, truly seeing them and thus, we sought to capture and share that seeing with you…
None of these shots are planned. Occasionally, when the spirit moved us, we stopped making the planned thing and focused on making THIS thing.
…we have sought to give embodiment to the souls of our ancestors frozen in the tactful but inadequate descriptor “enslaved,” a phrase that speaks only to what was done to them, not to who they were nor what they did. My ancestors – midwives and blacksmiths, agrarians and healers; builders and spiritualists, yearn’ers and doers – seen here as embodied by this wonderful cast of principal and background actors, did so very much.
Standing in for ancestors to see and remember them, and to experience being seen by them is as extraordinary as the insight to make this in the first place.