Though he was producing for the corporate behemoth Amazon, one could scarcely label director Barry Jenkins’ involvement with THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD as a “work-for-hire”. The existence of 2021’s THE GAZE is proof-positive of that: a 50 minute concept piece compiled and released by Jenkins himself, THE GAZE throws his artistic intentions with THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD into sharp relief.
A recurring visual motif throughout THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD finds the action punctuated by lyrical compositions that showcase various cast members (lead, supporting and extra alike) staring directly into the camera, their blank expressions seeming to penetrate the veil of fiction from across the vast distances of history. THE GAZE reveals just how extensively Jenkins and company labored to incorporate this concept into their shoot schedule, generating enough setups in this manner to comprise an entire separate feature’s worth. The format — consistent across each setup — is not dissimilar to a lens test, beginning with the image thrown out of focus before resolving its subject: a lone figure or a small group, each individual standing stone-still and gazing directly into the camera as it tracks forward. The backdrops display key locales from throughout the series, be it Cora’s plantation, Ridgway Senior’s creaky old mansion, Valentine’s farm, or the romantic underground stations of the titular railroad system itself. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton imbue these portraits with characteristic stylization, letting gold sunlight flare into the corners of the frame while shooting in slow-motion so as to reinforce the gravity emanating from each participant. All the while, Nicholas Britell’s haunting score bridges each composition into a singular piece of living history.
Even as a concept piece with only the faintest wisp of a narrative, THE GAZE asserts itself as a showcase for Jenkins’ core artistry— a foundation held up by the pillars of compassion and visibility. The act of breaking the fourth wall has the effect of involving the audience, of making us complicit in the proceedings. The characters invite us to bear witness to history unfolding in the present tense; the irony, of course, being that there’s nothing we can actually do. These are just images, fixed onto a two-dimensional plane. Mere light, flickering amongst shadow. To find these faces looking directly back at us is to force our acknowledgment of their humanity, activating our compassion and — hopefully — our resolve to resist the forces of dehumanization in our own lives.
THE GAZE reinforces Jenkins’ own compassion for his collaborators, its unique format serving to highlight the luminescent beauty of Laxton’s cinematography, the resonant weight of Britell’s score, or the earthy texture of Mark Friedberg’s production design. Indeed, the piece itself exists entirely because of Jenkins’ compassion, posted with no advance fanfare to his personal Vimeo page and only picked up by media journalists after the fact. Though not necessarily essential, it is more than a worthy companion piece to THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, allowing Jenkins to complete his artistic ambitions with the project to full satisfaction.
As of this writing, THE GAZE is Jenkins’ most recently released work, although it unfortunately has been removed from Jenkins’ Vimeo page and is no longer widely available (smash that download button if it’s available, folks!). With his recent attachment to helm the sequel to Disney and Jon Favreau’s live-action THE LION KING adaptation, Jenkins now stands in a peculiar place in his filmography. The occasion of a massive, brilliantly-executed Amazon Prime streaming series proves without a shadow of a doubt that Jenkins is a consummate filmmaker at every level of production or tier of budget. Though his decision to join the Disney studio machine when his prior work has otherwise been so bracingly personal and uncompromising is admittedly a puzzling development, it also represents an opportunity. It’s easy to be cynical and dismiss the move as “selling out”, but beyond the added bonus that the gig will probably set him up for quite a while financially, he clearly sees potential where many (if not most) do not. For that reason alone, it gives fans and followers of his work a reasonable cause for good-faith curiosity. Regardless of where Jenkins’ artistic whims take him next, he remains on a clear trajectory as a force for innovation, courageousness — and yes, compassion — poised to profoundly shape American image-making for many years to come.