Even just ten years ago, it would have been tough to imagine someone in Barry Jenkins’ position following up the Oscar-winning likes of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk with a 10-episode television series for Amazon. That it doesn’t seem too far-fetched is a sign of how the times have changed. We’re lucky for this shift, as without it we wouldn’t have gotten The Underground Railroad. Adapted from the 2016 novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead, Jenkins has crafted a series so monumental that it’s impossible to imagine this accomplishment not continuing to be spoken about many decades in the future. To put it simply, The Underground Railroad is a top-to-bottom masterpiece, full stop.
Having seen all ten episodes of the series upon writing this review, without getting too deep into plot details one can say that the director and his remarkable team of co-writers (Jihan Crowther, Allison Davis, Jacqueline Hoyt, Nathan C. Parker, and Adrienne Rush) manage to avoid the many pitfalls of telling a slave narrative on screen while also bringing a remarkable complexity to the world that they build. As we have seen more and more lately the depiction of these narratives and of Black pain/trauma in general rightly criticized for their exploitative, desensitizing natures, The Underground Railroad never crosses over into territory that would disrespect the legacy of what is being told here.
The trick, naturally, is to focus first and foremost on the individual characters within this experience – namely, one Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu, giving a performance for the ages), a slave who, with her companion Caesar (Aaron Pierre), escapes the plantation she has been forced to work on, making their way into a world they don’t know, while a merciless slave catcher (Joel Edgerton) and his right-hand man (Chase W. Dillon) work to hunt them down and bring them back. Rather than the statistics that we’re often used to seeing in stories from this era of history (you won’t see any title cards with large numbers of devastating losses here designed to give you a textbook understanding of the scale of slavery’s atrocity), Cora and Caesar are full-bodied characters, and Jenkins approaches them with the same level of care and complexity that he does any of his other characters that we’ve seen in his career.
While the circumstances of their world unearths very specific themes, the writing here doesn’t make any effort to distance the audience from the events that we are seeing. These characters and their experience is as real and as present as any story set in the modern day. This lends weight to the knowledge that what we’re seeing isn’t some historical time that we can separate ourselves from. Every action, every horror that takes place in The Underground Railroad speaks to the blood-soaked foundations that this nation has always been built on, and to the ancestry that Black folks in America are still impacted by to this day – as so little, if any, of it has actually changed. The situations may have become altered, but the ideas remain as potent as ever.
A line in the third episode speaks of “the savagery that man is capable of when he believes his cause to be just” – an idea that immediately flashes to mind the events of January 6, 2021, and so many other occurrences of similar hate-fueled violence that have been brought to light over the past year. Of course, none of this is new. As demonstrated within the series, these horrors have always been there, and surely if this series had come out two or three years ago instead there would be other recent events that would come into your mind while watching it. One thing that the series makes very clear, without ever needing to hit the sledgehammer to illustrate its point, is that this is the same world we’re currently living in.
As Cora moves from place to place, using the novel’s invention of a slightly altered world where the Underground Railroad is an actual physical manifestation of a train underground where runaway slaves transport themselves with the aid of allies, she sees that the world outside of the plantation isn’t all too different from the one she’s always known. No matter what you change, the white supremacist world that the United States of America has been founded on since it was stolen from the Indigenous people will always find a way to create hierarchal systems with the same class of people at the top. Every time Cora thinks she might find refuge, the reality shifts and she still remains at the bottom. A state with Black folks outlawed entirely has simply substituted Irish immigrants as their inferior class, while a community created by free Black folks still ostracizes runaway slaves as “lesser-than”. No matter where you go in America, the rules change on the way to the same conclusion.
This description makes The Underground Railroad sound like a series consisting of nothing but hopeless despair, and that’s a fair assumption. In certain moments of the series, it’s difficult to imagine how one could find any hope. Episode five, in particular, set within a burning wooded area, reaches a level of utter devastation equal to that of Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See. Through it all, however, there is the persistence of love, of compassion, of resilience. Whether it’s the ending of Moonlight or the idea of love as the ultimate act of protest in If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ work has always found this juxtaposition of presenting grace notes within the terrors of the world – some of those notes courtesy of cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell, Jenkins’ recurring collaborators, working with him again here. Few filmmakers are so capable of illustrating the beauty of life that is being squashed down by oppressive systems the way that Jenkins has been able to, and it’s unsurprising that this quality of his work shines through again across these ten episodes.
Even as Cora is put through tremendous pain time and time again, even as she sees atrocity after atrocity enacted upon her people, there is a part of her that refuses to give up. She fights on, and not only does she fight for herself, but she fights for others as well. She looks after those around her wherever she can, and it’s in this unshakeable compassion that we can see how that love is a force that persists through the ages with a strength that lends a sense of hope. Jenkins would never present this idea in any kind of saccharine way that pretends this nation isn’t the cruel land that it is, but he also builds this window into something else, some understanding of the complexity of the world that allows for a possibility that this isn’t a fixed path with no escape. You don’t come away from The Underground Railroad feeling as if all hope is lost; you leave it as though you have lived through this experience with this woman, and are presented with the knowledge that Cora may still have a chance for something better. The systems haven’t changed by the end, and haven’t changed still to this day so many years after her time, and yet perhaps she isn’t resigned to a life of unending misery.
Through all ten episodes of The Underground Railroad, the theme that most endures is one of stories – stories we tell, yes, but more than that it’s our own stories that we hold onto. Cora’s journey through the series is not so much about changing the world around her, but finding the voice within herself to take ownership over her story, and demand that she is the one to be able to tell it. When life has taken away everything from her, the one thing that it can’t take away is her story. She holds onto that with every last piece of fight she has, and that’s where Cora’s internal journey takes her as she traverses this land that has so much ingrained animosity towards her. Stripped of it all, she still has her story, and The Underground Railroad allows her to tell it to us, and to herself.
The Underground Railroad premieres Friday, May 14th on Amazon Prime Video