In late April, a clip from Chelsea Handler’s 2016 series, Chelsea Does, in which a Confederate apologist compared enslaved human beings to farm equipment, went viral. What the man tells Handler isn’t that shocking to Black people educated in the South, but it’s still horrifying: “People were taken care of. Would you take a tractor that you just bought brand new and tear it up, misuse it? No, you’re going to take care of it, ’cause you just spent a pile of money on that. Those people produced their crops, worked their fields, so you’re not gonna mistreat something like that.”
Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), the hero of Amazon Prime Video’s The Underground Railroad, is not a tractor. She’s a person who has never tasted pure, untainted freedom but nonetheless thirsts for it. No matter what the Constitution might’ve said at the time, freedom is the natural human condition and Cora is driven to escape her captivity. This puts her, like every enslaved person, in existential conflict with an evil institution. After all, a tractor or a piece of furniture won’t defy you, nor will it slip away at the first opportunity. Slavery could only function through the deliberate and ongoing dehumanization of a people. It was a torturous process that would begin anew with the birth of every Black child, but one that never fully succeeded, despite the chains and whips, because the human spirit is not so easily destroyed.
Premiering May 14, The Underground Railroad is Oscar winner Barry Jenkins’ limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel, which imagines the 19th-century Underground Railroad as a literal railroad beneath Southern soil that Black people used to escape slavery. Perhaps Whitehead’s greatest achievement is that this premise isn’t ridiculous, and both the novel and series transcend blunt allegory with a haunting magical realism that openly embraces the horrors of slavery in America. Whitehead’s prose is engaging, but Jenkins’ visuals are searing. The Underground Railroad doesn’t hesitate to show slavery’s brutality in shocking, often gruesome detail: There’s the body horror of a man being whipped to near death and burned alive; the Rosemary’s Baby-style psychological terror of a woman having her child stolen from her for sinister purposes; and a slave catcher, relentless as the shark in Jaws, who stalks human prey and drags them back to hell. The Underground Railroad’s most consistently disturbing moments make up a historical reality we can’t escape, no matter how hard we try.
Jenkins has assembled an amazing cast, including William Jackson Harper as Cora’s love interest, Royal, and Lily Rabe, who chills the screen as Ethel, the wife of a North Carolina abolitionist (Damon Herriman). Aaron Pierre (Krypton) is particularly affecting as Cora’s early confidante, Caesar, but Cora is the fulcrum of the series, and the remarkable Mbedu brings her to life with quiet determination. She moves as if carrying the crushing weight of unseen chains forged over centuries, but she’s neither a passive nor reactive character. In his Academy Award-winning triumph, Moonlight, and his follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins would sometimes have characters look directly into the lens, making a more emotional connection with the viewer. He applies this technique here, and it’s impressive how effectively it gets us inside Cora’s thoughts, so we intimately share her rare moments of joy and all-too-frequent feelings of terror. Filmmakers can resort to the crutch of voice-over narration when adapting a novel, but Jenkins never abandons the cinematic language he’s mastered.
Cora’s journey takes her from an oppressive Georgia plantation to an alternate-reality South Carolina, which offers a scathing critique of white liberal racism that could easily apply to modern times. She soon moves on to North Carolina, and although slavery is outlawed in the state, so are the once-enslaved. The white residents have no use for Black people if they can’t exploit them, and the Irish have taken their place because, as Cora is told, it’s not like “these people could do for themselves.” Cora eventually finds sanctuary in Indiana, among a community of free Black people—but this is still America, so their freedom is no less precarious than hers.
Never far behind Cora is the slave catcher, Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), and his young Renfield, Homer (Chase W. Dillon), a Black child obsessively devoted to his “boss” without a shred of sympathy for the enslaved people Ridgeway pursues. A masterful Edgerton gives the almost demonic Ridgeway depth, but he’s never presented sympathetically. There’s no struggle over his duty versus his conscience. No, he is wholly committed to Cora’s destruction. She correctly observes that as long as he draws breath, she’ll never know a moment’s peace. There is no potential for hand-holding and reconciliation between these two opposing forces.
The series’ white characters aren’t spared their complicity in slavery. They aren’t painted as otherwise decent people who are products of their time. Anyone seeking soothing moral relativism should look elsewhere. In Notes Of Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.” It’s impossible to confine other humans to bondage without stripping away your own humanity. There is no historical context where these actions are any less monstrous and barbaric. The Underground Railroad provides obvious villains, such as Ridgeway and Terrance Randall (Benjamin Walker), the sadistic plantation owner, but Jenkins conveys the true banality of evil when the camera lingers on Randall’s dinner guests, who drink cold beverages and savor a sumptuous meal as their fellow humans are tortured within a few feet of them.
Movies such as Gone With The Wind have depicted enslaved people as comical grotesques, but here Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton flip the visual script: The Southern “gentlemen” and “ladies” are clearly seen as twisted people, utterly indifferent to the suffering of others. There’s no sweeping Max Steiner score either, as composer Nicholas Britell sets a more suitably sinister mood. These artistic choices ground The Underground Railroad in the perspective of the damned, the people whose misery keeps the mint juleps flowing. The psychopath, Alex, from A Clockwork Orange might hear Beethoven as he viciously attacks defenseless people, but there is no “Singin’ In The Rain” for the enslaved in America.
Thanks to streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, creators don’t have to choose between scraping by with a limited-series budget or cramming an epic story into a single movie’s two- or three-hour run time. Jenkins successfully adapted Baldwin’s brilliant If Beale Street Could Talk, but he stretches himself even further with The Underground Railroad. As the technical “showrunner,” Jenkins directs all 10 episodes and writes several. It’s quite the undertaking, and Jenkins lets the series build momentum with each installment. Moonlight felt like several short films that could stand on their own while still forming a coherent whole. The Underground Railroad is paced similarly without seeming episodic. Each installment feels complete and satisfying, which is good because the story’s intensity doesn’t lend itself to binge watching. Most installments are around an hour, with a few close to a feature-length 70 minutes. There is one installment that’s just 20 minutes, a welcome breather that also provides a hopeful coda to a tragic scene that precedes it.
Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator in Invisible Man lives underground before he decides he’s done hiding and is ready to face a hostile world. The station agents along the Underground Railroad repeatedly ask Cora for her “testimony.” Although Cora runs toward a future free of bondage, she can’t truly escape until she confronts her past here in the present. In that sense, Cora shares a struggle familiar with many of us today. We can’t advance until we tell our stories without worrying if they are divisive or uncomfortable. The Underground Railroad isn’t an easy watch, but like Cora’s testimony, it’s a necessary step forward.