The Gaze / Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

An Act of Seeing: Barry Jenkins's The Gaze

In Behind the Screen

In his extraordinary adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Underground Railroad, director Barry Jenkins uses a rigorous visual aesthetic approach to the story of Cora, who escapes enslavement on a Georgia plantation and makes her arduous journey north through a series of surreal, nightmarish experiences. In The Gaze (2021, 52 mins.), his companion piece to The Underground Railroad, Jenkins further engages ideas about visibility, history, and power in moving-image portraits of the show’s background actors, inspired by the work of artist Kerry James Marshall and set to composer Nicholas Britell’s haunting score. Dressed in period-inspired costumes across the various environments that comprise the series’ occasionally fantastical yet achingly resonant mid-nineteenth-century settings, the actors gaze directly at the viewer, evincing a mix of vulnerability, defiance, and candor.

Along with the entirety of The Gaze, the installation features production and costume design material, allowing for an appreciation of how the visual world depicted in The Underground Railroad was developed. It includes a selection of concept art, made by production designer Mark Friedberg working with artist Hugh Sicotte, which translates the script into digitally rendered images that vividly evoke the varied landscapes of the series. Mood boards compiled by costume designer Caroline Eselin show the wide range of historical and artistic imagery that influenced the overall look of the characters, and costume illustrations, made by artist Gloria Young Kim, demonstrate how those references were ultimately distilled into Eselin’s costume designs.

In tandem with the installation, the Museum will also present a members-only screening of episodes 1 and 2 of The Underground Railroad in the Redstone Theater on Sunday, August 15 at 4pm. Learn more about becoming a MoMI member here. 

An Act of Seeing: Barry Jenkins's The Gaze is supported by Amazon Prime Video. Special thanks to Mark Friedberg, Caroline Eselin, Hugh Sicotte, and Michael Fails.