Presented with one of the biggest career challenges yet, Mississippi Gulf Coast native and University of Southern Mississippi (USM) alumna Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, ’97 along with her team designed costumes for the Amazon’s series “The Underground Railroad,” from Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead.
This 10 part-series chronicles the harrowing journey of enslaved Cora and her bid for freedom in antebellum South.
As the synopsis for Jenkins’ adaptation reads: “After escaping a Georgia plantation for the rumored Underground Railroad, Cora discovers no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Over the course of her journey, Cora is pursued by Ridgeway, a bounty hunter who is fixated on bringing her back to the plantation she escaped.”
Going from collaborating with Jenkins on “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Moonlight” to this series was ambitious and could be perceived as a career highlight, even though Eselin struggles with finding the right words to describe her experience. Due to the weight of the subject matter of the latter, which shines the light on the brutal atrocities of slavery through magic realism and alternate history.
“It is hard to find the words, as describing this experience as “thrilling” or “a dream” feels unsuitable,” says Eselin. “It was a serious responsibility. The obligation of being as authentic as possible in each portrayal was a challenging undertaking — I’d say it has been one of the most challenging, educational, and valuable things I’ve ever done in my career.”
To be as grounded in reality as possible, the design process started with a long gestational period of research and prep that lasted 6 months. It included going to institutions devoted to the research and preservation of history like the New-York Historical Society, New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Whitney Plantation Museum, among others.
Eselin says the scope and size is what’s different than what they’ve done before, it was massive as it included: 110 principals, 80-85 stunt performers and around 3,000 background artists.
In approaching the design process, they built a world of its own for each episode, as Cora embarks on this journey from state to state; opening in a plantation in Georgia and making its way through North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana.
“Every episode is different. It’s a different period, even though we’re in the 1850s, we were traveling through Cora’s consciousness and examining years in American history,” said Eselin. “All costume choices were focused on not only conveying her progression, and sometimes regression, and truth, but also taking care not to be showy and to avoid taking away from the story.”
Photo credit belong to Kyle Kaplan/Amazon.