Q&A

In The Underground Railroad, Sheila Atim’s Mabel Is a Unifying Figure


portrait of sheila atim in black and white
Photo by Misan Harriman

Throughout Barry Jenkins and Colson Whitehead’s new Amazon Prime series The Underground Railroad, which debuted May 14 and has already gained critical acclaim as a serious awards season contender, the character Mabel is something of a ghost. She’s the mother of the main character, Cora, whose journey through the United States as a runaway slave trying to stay free is chronicled in 10 grueling and heart wrenching episodes. Mabel’s story isn’t fully told until the final episode, but she’s still omnipresent: her tenacity is referenced often and her presence as the midwife on the Randall Plantation is woven deeply into the story. She is the Cora prototype, having successfully escaped slavery and fled for the Canadian border on the reimagined Underground Railroad, which Jenkins and Whitehead cast as an actual underground train operated by a network of people. Mabel is played by Sheila Atim, a Ugandan-born British actress, singer, composer, and playwright who got her start on the stage, appearing in Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy in 2016 and the original production of Girl from the North Country.

When Atim met me on Zoom, she called from Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, where she was visiting family and working on an as-yet undisclosed project. She hadn’t finished watching the entirety of The Underground Railroad, which is an adaptation of Whitehead’s 2016 novel of the same name, but knew based on her experience filming that Mabel would act as a unifying character—literally and metaphorically—for the series.

“The story of American slavery is that there are so many stories within it,” she said. “It’s not just a stock series of events. Each character has come from a different place—maybe they've ended up in the same place, but they’ve got different stories.” These varying narratives are portrayed in stunning fashion on the limited series, whose individual episodes each have their own moods and themes. “One of the things Barry said is that he wanted to make this as complete, rounded, and as varied as possible, so that it’s not just a flash in the pan hour and a half film where you can’t move away from it because you're just being bombarded with horror,” she added. “To be able to give the whole of that story and those characters the time and space that they deserve, was important.” Below, Atim discusses the phenomenon of trauma porn, Mabel’s status as a central character, and her experience filming in Georgia.

Barry Jenkins said he looked to movies like The Master and There Will Be Blood for inspiration on The Underground Railroad—specifically avoiding other movies or shows that were about slavery. Did you have a similar approach to your source material when getting into character as Mabel?

Mine was more directly related to Mabel and her story. I didn’t go heavy on the research—I looked into midwifery, read the book, and some of the material that Barry sent over. But I tried to keep it light; I wanted to find the person underneath everything, and that was something Barry was very keen on as well. He told me he just wants to understand what it is to be a mother in that situation, and what it is to be Mabel specifically, as opposed to a slave. Although she is one, we tried to drill down to the fundamental human aspects of her character.

And what are those fundamental human aspects?

Mabel is a woman who is trying to make the best out of an atrocious and unnatural situation. She’s got a lot of responsibility as a midwife. It’s a very conflicting thing, knowing that you’re actively facilitating bringing life into that world. Mabel might be thinking, if I can do it in the best way possible, and in a way that causes the least damage and least pain, then okay. But it doesn’t take away the fact that you’re still helping birth babies with the knowledge that they won't be receiving the care, love, and the kind of nurturing environment that they should.

One of the things I read about when I was looking at midwifery was, they had—in what was obviously a very disempowered situation—a degree of power. They were responsible for bringing human property, and therefore money, onto the plantation. Because of that, they were regarded as a little bit elevated in status and some of them were actually able to bargain payment. There is an awareness that Mabel is a unifying figure on the plantation, even if others don’t openly admit it. And she’s not just a midwife, she’s clearly somebody who’s knowledgeable about herbs—she has a garden that she’s tending to—and people call upon her when something goes wrong. But others on the plantation don’t explicitly give her that status, she just accepts that as part of the burden. She feels the weight of the responsibility, but she’s a human being like everyone else—enduring the same atrocities and witnessing them as well. She epitomizes that battle, the internal human struggle, a microcosmic version of transatlantic slavery and race-based oppression in general. She manifests that as a person.

Photo by Misan Harriman

Do you see this manifestation of Mabel as something that transcends even the show itself?

One of the things that anyone who has experienced race-based oppression anywhere in the world can tell you is you often find yourself in situations where you know it’s not the ideal, but you feel a sense of responsibility—whether it’s to try and keep the atmosphere convivial for everyone to just get on with it, or maybe you’re one of the only people who are not white in that situation. You have a degree of responsibility as a representative from a larger group, which is a great deal of pressure. Constantly, people are having to negotiate their situations. It’s not just the case that we can get complete parity and justice every single time when we deserve it.

I’m curious about your experience filming in Georgia. Was that your first time in the American South?

Yes, it was. And it was my first time filming in America as well. I’d done a theater show in Brooklyn, a production of The Tempest, but that was with a U.K. production company—this was the first time I was playing an American among a cast of Americans in America on a screen job [Laughs]. It was interesting for me to be in a place of such historical significance, and to also be filming in the place where the story is set, because that doesn't always happen. I could feel the vibrations in the land.

There’s one scene in the last episode of the series in which Mabel teaches a slave who has just miscarried, Polly, how to nurse another slave’s newborn twins. At first, it feels like a violation—but in the moment, it actually becomes very tender. How did you navigate filming this particular scene and the emotions in it?

It is just as complex as you experienced it, in that Mabel knows this isn’t the most healthy thing for Polly to go through right now, having just lost her own child. But also, her milk is coming through. The whole scene is filled with tension because Polly’s husband Moses is also there and experiencing his own grief with the situation. The theme for Mabel is that she is trying to act as this human glue, trying to keep all of this fragility around her and within her together. For me, it was always about navigating that and understanding the volatility of it—knowing that even these tender moments can’t be indulged in too much because just around the corner is sadness or tragedy. I saw Mabel as keeping a degree of detachment from the stakes of it all, otherwise it’s just too much.

The show can be, at times, very difficult to watch—especially during whipping scenes, or in the depictions of people being burned at the stake. But I feel The Underground Railroad is not trauma porn. Do you agree?

I completely agree with people when they say there’s a right way to do this kind of thing, and a wrong way to do it. This is definitely one of the things Barry wanted to discuss within the piece—to show us beyond the brutality and make us see that these slaves were human beings; they were people just like us, living in a different time. That’s so important whenever you’re creating stories about things that have real, visceral violence, because sometimes that can take over and be all that we see and all that we think about and all that we remember. There’s a balance when it comes to, how much of the truth of the horror do you delve into in a way that is responsible and in a way that actually serves the piece? The show not depicting trauma porn also has to do with the book. It doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situation. But it’s not showing us what we already know—it demonstrates things from a new perspective. And it’s humanizing—that’s one of the things that is so special about what Barry and Colson have done. It doesn’t feel like trauma porn because it doesn’t feel like it’s for titillation. It feels like a story that he thought was important to tell, and it is—because the world is still living in the wake of those events.

In December 2019, you received a Member of the Order of the British Empire for your contributions to the arts. You’ve said that being Ugandan, and for anyone from a nation that was once colonized by the British empire, getting an MBE is a complex thing. What was having those conflicting feelings like?

It’s a very funny thing, receiving an honor, because you get a letter out of nowhere in the mail that’s like, Hey, do you want this thing? And you’re like, Oh, okay. Yeah. Why not? I obviously don’t condone the violence that the British empire enacted upon so much of the world. But there is also the part of myself that says, I am proud to be Black British. There is a part of me that wanted to take that celebration, which I feel is deserved. But I completely respect the people who decided not to take them as well, because it’s always a personal conflict. Ultimately, it’s something that I wanted to take on. I want it to be something that I actively use, to try and be a gatekeeper, to try and make changes.

It appears both you and Mabel are gatekeepers in your own way.

It’s one of my ambitions. I don't know if I’m there yet. It’s always one of those weird things where you can’t quite tell in the moment, you only see it in hindsight and go, Oh, that’s the moment when it happened. But it’s definitely a responsibility that I feel very potently.