In ‘The Underground Railroad’, Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins returns to the small screen with a 10-part-long journey into America’s racist history. Led by strong performances from Thuso Mbedu, the show unfolds a slew of relevant stories that will instantly get you on board.
The past year had some fantastic movies about America’s history, the Civil War, slavery, and its abolition in particular. Antebellum and The Good Lord Bird arrived onscreen with timely stories as the U.S. is confronted with its racist past and present offscreen. Before that, the genre of storytelling was transformed when thrillers including Jordan Peele’s Get Out joined the catalog. Few filmmakers can do justice to the subject and Barry Jenkins does. The Oscar-winning director of Moonlight (he won Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay awards for the film) is making a comeback on the small screen with The Underground Railroad. Jenkins serves as showrunner and director in the 10-part period piece starring Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon, and Joel Edgerton. Aaron Pierre, William Jackson Harper, Sheila Atim, Amber Gray, Peter De Jersey, Chukwudi Iwuji, Damon Herriman, Lily Rabe, Irone Singleton, Mychal-Bella Bowman, Marcus “MJ” Gladney, Jr., Will Poulter, Peter Mullan, and more.
The Underground Railroad follows the journey of Cora (played by newcomer Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved young Black woman who escapes a plantation in Georgia in a bid to reach the mythical underground railroad. To her surprise, she finds a very real network of railroads and conductors that ferry Black persons on the run from their white masters to freedom or at least a temporary escape. On Cora’s heels is bounty hunter Ridgeway (played by Joel Edgerton) who has made a career out of catching slaves.
In the first episode of the series, we meet Cora at an evening celebration near a plantation. As the dancing and singing ensue, there is a sense of imminent danger in the air and sure enough a group of white men, the designated “masters” arrive ready to exert their dominance over the plantation workers at the smallest chance given. That sense of danger is infused into every scene in The Underground Railroad. Later in the episode, we get a brutally detailed sequence of the estate’s master ordering a runaway slave to be lashed and burnt at a stake while his guests indulge in a meal and some dancing. All this while the rest of the workers are made to watch. It becomes a deciding factor for the series’ protagonist to escape alongside Caesar (played by Arron Pierre) who thinks she’s lucky since her mother Mabel was the only person who successfully ran away and evaded capture. The sprawling series adapted from a book of the same name written by Coleson Whitehead plays out Cora’s journey as she embarks on a treacherous journey across an unforgiving America in the 19th Century.
Thuso Mbedu masterfully leads this gripping slavery drama.
There is a lot to be said about The Underground Railroad with its stunning cinematography, brilliant allegories, and thrilling plotlines but first, let’s talk about its lead star. Newcomer Mbedu is a force to be reckoned with and if you haven’t heard of her yet, you will. Investing in Cora isn’t much of a task as the actress transforms every frame of the show with her captivating portrayal of the character. In spite of her small frame, Cora is a survivor who exudes strength, she knows she isn’t meant to spend her life as a picker on a cotton plantation and nothing, not even the threat of execution will stop her from trying to free herself. She is also occasionally charming and as Caesar says, fine things suit her. Mbedu performs the hell out of all these interesting layers of her character. Occasionally when the camera pans as she silently gazing into the lens, it becomes clear that she’s a big reason for clicking on the next episode. The rest of the ensemble cast is filled with experienced and talented actors including an unhinged performance by Joel Edgerton, strong acts from The Good Place star William Jackson Harper, Aaron Pierre, and Chase W. Dillon.
The insanely gripping plot of The Underground Railroad is divided into chapters, or train stops if you will, chronicling Cora’s experiences in American states including ‘Georgia’, ‘North Carolina’, ‘Tenessee’, ‘Indiana’, and so on. Each new setting has its own challenges parallelly laying down her coming of age arc along with a keenly observant look at the country and its people. What really got me on board was just how much the showrunners manage to pack into every episode relaying one nuanced plot after another. As expected from a series this long, it manages to play out a number of detailed stories that do a great job of grounding the overarching narrative.
Along the way, Cora meets a number of people – Grace, a young Black girl who lives in an attic to stay hidden from society, Martin, a white conductor on the railroad who is an early abolitionist, and Royal a free man liberated from the brainwashing that goes into enslaving an entire community. Each new person we meet on the way has something to add to the neatly explored sub-plots. But because Cora feels like an outsider no matter where she goes (clearly being abandoned as a young girl by her mother has a deeper psychological effect) the main action in the show consists of the act of running. This very act lends the show a pacey quality that keeps it from turning into a slow burn. That being said, it could’ve done without a few flashbacks (there are many) just to retain audiences who aren’t up for a total of 9+ hours of viewing.
Barry Jenkins’ show is a searing, cinematic snapshot of slavery that’s hard to look at yet hard to look away from.
The Underground Railroad at its core is an exploration of not just systematic racism that still has a majority of America in its grip to date but also a study of humanity and the subsequent inhumanity the Black people are treated with. Prepare to watch a slew of violent scenes that require a trigger warning, it certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. But if you do manage to sit through the most difficult moments (I looked away from a few of them, I won’t lie), a grand spectacle awaits. Backing up the poetic narrative is a stunning almost ethereal portrait of landscapes and the people who populate them. Coming down to my favourite part – the visuals. Jenkins with his unique visual language and cinematographer James Laxton infuse the show with local flavour and the result is an authentic picture of America including its ugly racist reality. It really moves very fast from gunshots, killings, and blood-stains to a momentary pause just to take a second and take stock of everything the Black community has gone through.
By the end of 10 episodes of The Underground Railroad, I had gone through a plethora of emotions from ugly crying, biting my nails at every turn Cora takes, and eventually gawking at the screen in wonder. The show is a sum of its carefully studied parts, a visual spectacle that backs up an incredibly nuanced story of a very sensitive subject. And for that, I’m completely on board!
The Underground Railroad releases on May 14 on Amazon Prime Video.
Cover artwork: Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India
Image: Amazon Prime Video