Andrei Tarkovsky was the name on Barry Jenkins‘ lips as the main influence for his television adaptation of “The Underground Railroad.” Not the first name to think of when considering the enormity of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel. The story: a combination of the distressing tribulations of an escapee slave girl with a hefty volume of magical realism, doesn’t immediately describe the Russian auteur. And yet, the luminous visuals lensed by cinematographer James Laxton hark back to “Instant Light,” a small collection of polaroid photos taken by Tarkovsky. The wispy poetic mysticism of those pictures breezes through much of the beautiful golden hour images that appear within ‘Underground Railroad.’ The inspiration is there, yet this show is most certainly a Jenkins work. Filled with moments and themes which have resonated with each of the director’s previous pieces.
Centered around Cora (Thuso Mbedu), who embarks on a torturesome trip away from her Georgian plantation when asked by a fellow slave and would-be suitor, Caesar (Aaron Pierre), Cora’s plight turns into a search for true freedom in the Americas, all the while being hunted by a notorious slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who is hell-bent on returning Cora to her supposed rightful owners.
An acclaimed director known for his films in which race and love intersect, ‘Underground Railroad’ is Jenkins’ boldest project to date. An affecting fable of scale which uses the time that a mini-series can give so the details and emotions can breathe. Characters come and go. Some warmly welcomed. Others harboring secrets and scars caused by the rancid, corrosive nature of racism. What stays true to Jenkins’ previous works are the themes of lost love, racial displacement, and belonging. And while the events occur in alternate 19th century, its message feels relevant to where we are now. Book burning is lesser-seen, but anti-intellectualism still feels rampant. The obsessive mania of slave catcher Ridgeway plays counterpart to how some feel about law enforcement today. The show has many moving parts and Jenkins, who directs every episode, does well to keep the plates spinning.
The underground railroad itself is the show’s main fantastical element, a functional rail system built underneath the earth. A fictional yet physical representation of the clandestine network of people developed to shelter and aid escapees. However, the atrocities depicted within the narrative are taken from the painful real-life incidents experienced by African American slaves at the time. A despicable confrontation that occurs early on is eerily reminiscent of the malicious hanging sequence in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave.” Not in action, but in the unconcerned contempt of those committing the act. Despite this element of magical realism, ‘Underground Railroad’ solidifies itself as the kind of adult black-originated drama that is not only needed but we are seeing more of. It is not a Marvel crowd pleaser. It is far from the polished thrills that have made trending topics their master. But it unapologetically never tries to be. And never needs to be.
At times, this mesh of alternate universe sci-fi and historical incidents feels like a slight departure from Jenkins’ previous works. The director has been clearer with his storytelling in the past, but ambition in the world-building is no less engaging. Episodes of the show feel elemental and dreamlike—the ashy landscapes found in a desolate Tennessee. The warm glow of raging fires or candlelight illuminates many of the night sequences. The inviting, sunny visuals of a Skyscraper in North Carolina. Something that had not occurred in America at that point in the 19th Century. Jenkins, along with cinematographer James Laxton and the production team, input some distinctive work into the American landscape. The time spent on the steampunk sci-fi aspect of the tale feels slightly less involved. Jenkins’ strengths lie less in some of the speculative fiction aspects of Whitehead’s novel, and much more in highlighting the so-called grand delusion of America — a country so full of prospect, entangled in the deep tentacles of racism, segregation, and religious paranoia that it restricts the freedom of those who live there.
With Jenkins crafting his largest project to date, it is not just the filmmaker who needs to do the heavy lifting. ‘Underground Railroad’ features some top-level work from not only from behind the camera regulars of the Jenkins roster, but the show also features compelling work from its cast. A heady blend of familiar faces and a batch of newfound talent. The fierce tenacity and urgency that resides in Thuso Mbedu’s eyes are only matched by Joel Edgerton’s simmering rage and jealousy. Yet even in a series where Mbedu’s Cora carries much of the show on her shoulders, the likes of Arron Pierre, William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”), Peter Mullan, and Lily Rabe shine brightly in their scenes. Special praise should also go out to the young Chase W. Dillon, whose performance as Ridgeway’s black protégée, Homer, is both disturbing and disconcerting in equal quantities. These displays are beautifully wrapped with the vibrant photography of James Laxton and the eerie, elliptical musical compositions of Nicholas Britell.
One of the mini-series’ strongest episodes stems from the later chapters, in which a character finds themselves being transported on the railroad and introduced by a conductor to the idea of testimony. The show’s biggest strength lies in Jenkins’ ability to highlight the importance of this a person’s story and draw out empathy. This is despite the pain that has been faced. The shortest episode of the ten, chapter seven, tugs on emotions in ways that some of the more explicit and violent chapters do not. Cora’s tale is in some way one of the many stories we may never know to have occurred. It is a vindication of Cora’s actions influencing others in ways that she would not have deemed possible at the beginning of the narrative. The steadfast young woman soon becomes motivated to leave the plantation not only for freedom but in a complicated desire to best the mother who left her.
For Cora to get so far, however, she endures great pain in her plight. ‘The Underground Railroad’ will probably open the ongoing argument of black pain on screen, and the show indeed holds a fair share of difficult sequences. ‘Underground Railroad’ never shies away from the insidious nature of many of the people Cora interacts with. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is suggested early on during a stop in South Carolina. A treacherous stay in North Carolina is upsetting for the yellow-bellied hypocrisy which appears on display. A later episode contains some of Jenkins’ most action-filled work and highlights white supremacy at its most volatile and cold-blooded, with a passionate sermon and debate deftly questioning Afro-American’s place in America ending in violent slaughter.
While ‘The Underground Railroad’ is a show that details the dehumanization and breaking of black bodies due to racism and slavery, unlike shows such as the recent release “Them,” Jenkins is not interested in gratuitous depiction. Pain is handled with the kind of pathos needed for the subject. While it is true that “Them,” a racially tinged horror anthology, is designed with perhaps different aims in mind, ‘Underground Railroad’ presents its case as something which wallows less in hopelessness. A small flash of happiness early on reverberates hard later within the narrative. Jenkins, whose ability to capture warmth and intimacy from his gorgeously captured close-ups, also crafts yet another tender moment of love between two characters. Set to Clair de lune – a song which is a beautiful shortcut to sensitive emotion in itself – Jenkins depicts a sequence of affection that harks back to his previous work “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Moments of sanguineness may at times be somewhat fleeting, but it is clear ‘Underground Railroad’ deems them necessary and important. Cora is a person touched by those who are good and pays that goodness forward in the moments she can.
All the show’s events soon lead up to a subdued climax which folds back on itself in a way that may be unexpected to audience members. It will be of no surprise that some may expect something more conventional and miss the quiet hope and tenacity that the finale brings. The show’s final moments, highlighting portraits of black faces on the screen, remark that Cora’s story is just one of so many who have come from before. Their testimony etched on their faces. Nothing given. Everything earned. An earlier episode vocalizes the faces. “Our stories are always going to be right here.” [A-]
“The Underground Railroad” debuts on Amazon Prime on May 14.