The Underground Railroad is an unflinching, haunting and deeply beautiful adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name by Colson Whitehead. The narrative follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu), who escapes slavery with her companion Caesar (Aaron Pierre). An elaborate network of underground trains transport her throughout the country as she tries desperately to find freedom in a world constructed to keep her in chains. Hot on her heels is the slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his assistant Homer (Chase Dillon).
Written by Tresca Mallon
The Underground Railroad is historical fiction. While it has a basis in reality, most of the events are fictionalised. For example the Underground Railroad did exist as a network of safe houses dotted throughout the US as a means of helping enslaved people escape to the North or Canada. However, the railroad depicted in the show is an imagined physical embodiment of this system. In a similar vein, while Cora’s first stop at the Griffin Project in South Carolina is completely fictionalised, it is based on real experiments, such as the Tuskegee experiment which infected unwitting African American men with syphilis. Magical realism is frequently employed, however, the fact that every event has a basis in historical events is a terrifying reality
While the subject matter threatened contributing to the wealth of ‘trauma porn’ that surrounds African American stories in film and tv, in the safe hands of director Barry Jenkins the result is a tasteful and well-considered portrayal steeped in humanity and yet unafraid to shy away from the brutal reality of slavery in the USA. Jenkins imbues an indelible amount of life into characters who are constantly thrust into deeply dehumanising situations. One thing you can be sure of is that Jenkins will not allow you to look away. His long shots straight into camera force you to stare directly into the eyes of the characters. The injustice cannot be ignored. He expertly contrasts heart-stopping, fast-paced scenes with epic moments of stillness that bring the weight of the horror crashing down on the audience.
Thuso Mbedu’s performance is the definition of a powerhouse. The strength of emotional connection flows from her character as she carries the bulk of the narrative. The shot of Cora in the water, with a burning Tennessee forest at her back in episode 5 is so beautiful in it’s complete devastation. Her defiance is tangible as she would rather face certain death than return to the hands of human cruelty. Despite the unfathomable pain the lead character faces, Jenkins ensures throughout that there is still a capacity for joy, and this is expressed through Cora’s character as she finds moments of rest, community and connection, finding allies and love in the face of the terror that pursues her.
Joel Edgerton’s portrayal of the slave catcher Ridgeway is incredible in its bone-chilling realness. While we get a back-story to the character, giving context to his deep-rooted hatred, I am so glad that the show resists the impulse to give his character a redemption arc. So total is his cruelty, he did not deserve to be redeemed and there was no reason to find a bright side. With this absence of ambiguity, the ending is satisfyingly cathartic.
The Underground Railroad is a completely sensory experience, assisted by a genius soundtrack and masterful sound-editing. In scenes where characters are in mortal danger, the increase in volume and disconcerting sounds exacerbate the tension and create a sense of claustrophobia. Conversely when Cora gets the rare taste of freedom the noises of nature, the quiet stillness as well as melodic music give a sense of palpable release. The inclusion of modern music at the end of each episode brings the story into the present and ties the modern world to the historical narrative. This atmosphere is further enhanced by the colour palette which is often intensely vibrant and contrasts with the stark greys and dark tones in the scenes of her capture. In particular the opening scene with Cora and Caesar, while they discuss their escape, is stunning and a marvel of cinematography.
While emotionally draining, the Underground Railroad is a vital viewing experience. Each episode could be a short film in its own right, separated by chapter markers with varying play times and a different aesthetic to accompany the change of theme. The Underground Railroad is a carefully crafted labour of love from an incredibly skilful filmmaker.