The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins’ impeccable adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name, is nothing less than a modern-day epic. The limited series defies streaming bloat—fueled by great purpose and craftsmanship, there’s hardly an errant moment in its 10 episodes, which unfold at a deliberate pace. Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) journey from the hell of the antebellum South to deceptively perilous places farther north is a harrowing one, but one marked by love and a growing sense of hope. Jenkins crafts a story of the grandest scale, inside and out; charting a history that cannot be denied, but continues to be whitewashed, while following Cora as she learns to do more than survive.
The Oscar-winning director not only helmed The Underground Railroad, but also served as showrunner, co-writer, and co-executive producer. Not a stitch was dropped, no detail left unconsidered in the making of this fantasy/historical drama hybrid, which was four years in the making. To help capture the immense scope of the show, Jenkins re-teamed with composer Nicholas Britell, whose work on Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score. You might also know Britell for the instantly iconic theme he created for HBO’s Succession, which nabbed him an Emmy in 2019; he was also nominated in 2020 for the drama’s original score. His majestic compositions for The Underground Railroad, which were greatly informed by Jenkins, deserve the same recognition.
A multi-hyphenate in his own right, Britell has also collaborated regularly with Adam McKay, composing the scores for The Big Short and Vice. But The Underground Railroad took his creative partnership with Jenkins to a new level. When video calls weren’t cutting it, Britell actually moved to Los Angeles during the pandemic, staying for six months to work with Jenkins and his team. It took 18 months to finish the haunting, occasionally enervating, score, because Britell and Jenkins wanted to do more than establish moods and punctuate character beats. The duo set out to create different worlds with each arrangement.
Cora doesn’t just trek through different states (among them, Georgia, Tennessee, and Indiana); the North Carolina she encounters in The Underground Railroad is a place where slavery has been abolished to uphold white supremacy. But after she flees the Randall plantation with Caesar (Aaron Pierre), her first stop is in the fictitious South Carolina city of Griffin, whose white citizens eschew certain symbols of their racist past while still finding ways to dehumanize Black people. In the second episode, we learn Cora’s found employment in a kind of living history museum, where she plays various roles, including that of an enslaved person. That evening, she dresses in finery to dance with Caesar at a ball, and you can see how she longs to think of Griffin as home. Britell revealed to Indiewire that this waltz was the most difficult piece to write, as he had to find “a counterintuitive way to capture this by laying a lush orchestral score over the strangeness of the anachronistic city (which was set in the 1850s but included 20th century elements like a skyscraper).” The music, along with the bewildering production design and ominous behavior, had to raise the same questions for the viewer as Cora: “‘What is this place, where are we, and what is happening?’”
Britell recorded with a 50-piece orchestra in London from the “pod” he made with Jenkins and the team in Los Angeles. It was the largest orchestra they’d ever used, and they decided to make the strings the stars of the score. Early on in the process, Jenkins sent Britell an audio message that was just a drilling sound, which was meant to evoke the idea of excavating, of tunneling underground. Not just to drill below the surface in search of the mythical train that speeds people away to freedom, but to delve beneath Cora’s guardedness. The drilling takes multiple forms in Britell’s score, from organic (the buzzing of cicadas) to man-made (the clanging of the train on rails, the clash of metal at Ridgeway Senior’s forge). In “Genesis,” which accompanies the opening montage of the premiere, the drilling is represented by feverish bursts of tremolo, which in their own way echo the insectine whirring in the forest.
Just as there are moments of respite for Cora (and the viewer, in the form of a 20-minute episode in the back half of the season), Britell’s score is also given a chance to breathe and even cavort. “Bessie” and “Welcome To Your Future” share a crescendoing motif that brings to mind a bud unfurling, a spine extending, or lungs filling with air. Equally important is the absence of music, and the moments where sound supervisor Onnalee Blank takes over. “Chapter Four: The Great Spirit” focuses on the relentless Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), and the feelings of inadequacy that foment violence and hatred in mediocre white men, which are explored by Adrienne Rush’s script and Jenkins’ searching camerawork. The background music becomes distorted, and the piano is sparse, brittle; this is a life devoid of life. Ridgeway hasn’t earned some ominous theme; instead, there are just the sounds of distant laughter, of wheels turning, as Ridgeway decides on his path. By contrast, the bellows at his father’s forge emit these great, human-like gasps. Ridgeway, who has reveled in his cruel work as a slave catcher, is the one who’s denied his humanity. It’s a reminder that, as Jenkins told Vanity Fair, the shame of slavery does not belong to Black people.