Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios
(Disclaimer: This column contains descriptions of racialized violence and discusses some plot points in The Underground Railroad series.)
For this Black TV review, completing the ambitious and beautifully brutal 10-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Barry Jenkins The Underground Railroad was an emotional journey that touched all the nerves of what it is to be a person of color struggling to be counted in America.
There has been a lot of talk in pop culture circles about depictions of black pain in recent movies and TV shows; I will engage in this debate in more detail later. But for me, The Underground Railroad mainly earns the right to unfold such terrible and emotionally devastating moments. These performances allow this talented black director / producer / screenwriter to tell an epic story about black people – thus creating a televised masterpiece.
On the surface, it’s the story of an orphan slave, Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), who uses the underground railroad to escape a brutal 19th-century Georgia plantation. But Jenkins’ limited series for Amazon Prime Video adopts Whitehead’s use of magical realism to evoke a tale rooted in painful authenticity, guided by poetic fantasy.
The Reality: Cora flees a plantation where a recaptured slave is burned alive at a party hosted by the plantation owner – a punishment all slaves view as a horrific lesson / deterrent. This master also insists on watching his slaves copulate to supervise their breeding, like precious racehorses.
But when Cora and another slave – the valiant blue-eyed Caesar (Aaron Peter) – make their way to the Underground Railroad, they actually find him. is a railroad: a set of winding tracks deep in the earth serving to distance blacks from the horrors of the slave South. Accepting that the railroad tracks, locomotives, conductors, and station stops are real to the characters focuses your mind on the meaning of their travels more than the circumstances of their escape, allowing the work glove of Cora’s Faces to serve as pungent examples of larger ideas.
And make no mistake: the litany of nightmares Cora endures as she travels north is an attack of black pain. In a town in South Carolina, black people are allowed to attend schools taught to read by white teachers. But Cora also works in a museum that looks like a living zoo, where white people gather to watch her recreate her past life as a slave picking cotton in a glass case. It won’t be surprising to learn that she also finds darker revelations there.
Later, Cora is smuggled into a community in North Carolina where lynched blacks hang from trees lining both sides of the road leading to town, a sign that they are not tolerated. She is hidden by a white couple who seem to have little but contempt and anger for her. It is a constant theme in The Underground Railroad; most white characters have ruthless and damaging intentions for black people, even if they initially seem benign.
The casting is exceptional, led by the intense and emotional work of Thuso Mbedu in the role of Cora. She often oscillates between an open and uninhibited anxiety and a guarded and emotionally closed mistrust. Affable The right place alum, William Jackson Harper, gives her career performance as Royal, a free man with whom she builds a complicated and loving relationship.
Joel Edgerton is convincing as Arnold Ridgeway, the white slave hunter who follows his trail. He travels with a smart black boy named Homer (Chase W. Dillon), who does most of the work and most often exposes Cora’s hiding places. Homer appears to be an embodiment of both the hypocrisy of white exceptionalism and the way black people chain each other to serve white masters (that’s literal; Ridgeway’s young mate can’t sleep unless ‘he doesn’t put his wrist in a chain at night).
Jenkins, best known for the Oscar winning film Moonlight, is a director who makes black people beautiful, even in the midst of overwhelming hardship and suffering. His eye for color and majestic imagery transforms everything from the scorched swaths of Kentucky forest to endless fields of cotton plantations into striking paintings.
But he’s also a filmmaker who takes his time telling stories. Which means viewers have to sit in the pain of the traumatic moments, waiting for Jenkins to fully reveal the horror you know is coming. It’s hard to take, especially if you already know the hard truths these moments are designed to convey.
Many of the most heartbreaking scenes from The Underground Railroad communicate familiar ideas. The role of white jealousy in the desire to oppress blacks. The insidious manner of white culture convinces black people to work for their own oppression and the oppression of others. The many ways black people struggle to process and transcend trauma. The ways in which black joy and peace can be felt as the briefest respite from a seemingly eternal struggle.
This is why, in addition to feeling sadness and disgust watching these horrors being carried out on screen, I also felt anger. Not just for the injustice of it all, but for the way black people have been forced, generation after generation, to expose our wounds of systemic racism, just to prove to the larger – often white – world that it exists.
One of the reasons why projects like The Underground Railroad feel so needed is because white America has tried so hard to deny, lessen or erase the shame of its racist past – refusing to recognize the connection between centuries of oppression and current and lingering problems.
This version of The Underground Railroad comes to us at a time when we are most prepared for its message, but severely challenged by its delivery system. We are almost a year after the date of George Floyd’s death; 12 months in which a video capturing the brutality of the slow murder of this black man below the knee of white policeman Derek Chauvin was played and replayed on large and small screens.
Another wound, torn several times. And while the images of Floyd’s death arouse sympathy for victims of systemic racism, it leaves many of us unable to endure more images of black lives suffocated by prejudice and fear.
But Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad demands that we endure another look. Because when Cora finally reaches a community ruled by free blacks, the Indiana winery called Valentine Farm, we viewers understand why the director took us through hell to find this oasis. Our relief is as palpable as his.
There are issues here: A lot of time spent telling the story of the white slave hunter Ridgeway – and because he’s the most talkative character, he often tells us his story, even after the series has it. showed. The unfortunate downside is that we learn more about her inner thoughts and motivations than many black characters here, even Cora.
And some messages come with steamroller subtlety, like when a black character from Valentine Farm says, “America too is an illusion. Its very foundations are murder, theft and cruelty. Yet WE are here. “
Yet this line sums up the enduring and transformative message of Jenkins’ epic masterpiece. Black people are here, ready to survive and thrive, our lives filled with poetry, magic and joy no matter what an unjust world throws at us.
And it’s always something worth watching.