Barry Jenkins's adaptation of Colson Whitehead's novel is cognizant of how Black suffering is turned into spectacle
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
William Jackson Harper and Thusu Mbedu share a quiet moment in The Underground Railroad.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (Barry Jenkins). All 10 episodes available to stream Friday (May 14) on Amazon Prime Video Canada. Rating: NNNN
As breathtakingly beautiful as it is, The Underground Railroad can also be a traumatizing watch. The 10-part limited series is directed by Barry Jenkins. He brings the romantic aesthetic and focus on Black love we see in his films like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk to this adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
But now Jenkins has gone back to the Antebellum South with a tale about a girl named Cora (Thusu Mbedu) on an odyssey across multiple state lines to escape slavery. He can’t push aside oppressive white characters and their cruelty to the margins or out of the frame entirely, as he did in past films.
The series depicts in harsh and vivid details the upsetting violence in Whitehead’s text. The first episode, in which a man is slowly and horrifyingly tortured, is particularly hard to stomach. The victim is an escaped slave, returned to the plantation owner who makes the punishment a spectacle for his guests as they enjoy their dinner in the garden. Cora and her peers on the Georgia plantation are also forced to watch.
I won’t describe the violence, which outdoes anything we’ve seen in 12 Years A Slave or Django Unchained. Suffice to say the memory of it still leaves me feeling hollowed out. And that sensation has been far too familiar lately, not just because of recent headlines but also movies and TV shows that admonish racism but linger on Black suffering. The trauma porn has felt dialed up and inescapable between the Groundhog Day-style time loop in the Oscar-winning short film Two Distant Strangers, about a Black man who is murdered on repeat by police, and the abhorrent and unspeakable cruelty depicted in the 50s-set horror series Them.
Unlike those projects, The Underground Railroad is contemplative and hopeful – and cognizant of the purpose such graphic displays of cruelty serve. The traumatic violence in that first episode is entertainment for the white audience and a means to control the Black people in their captivity. How are such methods reconfigured for today, we should wonder? In later episodes, Cora hears the rich, vicious sound of a whip echoing as a memory she keeps running from.
Played wonderfully by South African actor Mbedu, Cora is petite, watchful, wilful and sensitive; though she fights to keep her feelings buried or at the least subdued. Throughout The Underground Railroad, she’s doggedly chased by a slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton). Having already failed at finding Cora’s mother Mabel, who disappeared when the former was a child, Ridgeway makes his current pursuit an obsession.
He’s a compelling villain who, like a figure straight out of a Western, lives by a twisted code. Ridgeway is a slave catcher. His partner is a young Black boy named Homer (Chase Dillon) who he cares for affectionately. He will treat captives like Cora respectfully, while refusing to let her get away so long as he lives. And throughout the series, he kills a lot of white men but not a single Black person, because as property they’re worth more alive.
His cruelty is distinguished from the various slavers, white mobs and greedy politicians Cora gets entangled with on her long and near mythical journey across Gothic landscapes and scorched earth.
The series honours the novel’s fantasy touches: the routes and stash houses of the underground railroad are replaced with mythic tracks, locomotives and uniformed conductors proudly hustling passengers across opulent stations. The stations are magical reprieves that give a little breathing room from the reality outside, whether in South Carolina or Indiana, where America expresses its hate in diverse ways.
Jenkins’s decision to stretch Whitehead’s narrative – with some significant departures – across 10 episodes can feel wearying at times. But for the most part, the slow roll pays off beautifully. This is a series of epic artistry, where the aesthetic feels inspired alternately by Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and more.
For all its pain and violence, the series soars when Jenkins and his regular cinematographer James Laxton find those moments of joy, affection and community and bathe them in golden lights or autumnal colours. The show conjures up so much immense feeling in small but sweeping romantic moments: slow dances, averted glances, long embraces or the warm and silent space between two Black characters who find comfort in each other’s eyes.
In a recurring motif, Jenkins and Laxton frame Cora and supporting or background characters in beautiful tableaus. They stand frozen, staring directly at the camera, as time keeps on moving. It’s as though they are posing and waiting for a photograph that belongs in the history books, giving you an image of pride, dignity and peace, instead of suffering.