(This review draws on the first two episodes, ‘Georgia’ and ‘South Carolina’, of The Underground Railroad.)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad chronicles Cora Randall’s (newcomer Thuso Mbedu) desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. After escaping a Georgia plantation for the rumoured Underground Railroad, Cora discovers no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Over the course of her journey, Cora is pursued by Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a bounty hunter fixated on bringing her back to the plantation she escaped.
As Cora travels from state to state, she contends with the legacy of the mother that left her behind and her own struggles to realize a life she never thought was possible. The change in setting that comes with almost every episode serves as a window into Cora’s state of mind. Rather than the traditional serialized structure that returns to the same world and characters with each episode, we see Cora and her landscape evolve over the course of the series.
Jenkins adapted Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad alongside veteran writers Jacqueline Hoyt (The Leftovers, The Good Wife), Nathan C. Parker (Moon, Equals) and a trio of newcomers – Allison Davis, Adrienne Rush and Jihan Crowther. The series is, on the whole, faithful to the book. There are deviations, but these are done in service to a decision that ultimately elevates The Underground Railroad from what you might have expected of a neo-slave drama: a refusal to accessorise with images of black people being tortured by/dying at racist hands.
Speaking of the scenes in The Underground Railroad, and their depiction of the American institution of slavery, Barry Jenkins says:
“…while I have done everything I can to present them forthrightly and without over-sensation, the fact of their existence is a hard thing to bear. It is for that reason that alongside those hard images I have also strove to pay respect to softer ones whose existence is no less emphatic.”
The softness found in a shared feast, of Cora marvelling at her own reflection, is a welcome counterpoint to the brutalities of slavery and how it is immediately conjured in the mind. But when there are hard images, they serve a narrative purpose, like the climax of episode one ‘Georgia’. Such scenes make Cora and Caesar’s decision to run away an absolute imperative, and, given the horrors we see awaiting them as they travel from state to state, go some way to evoke why someone would take that leap when everything tells them ‘No’ – why the unknown to which Cora runs, again and again, always holds the promise of ‘better than here’.
The cinematography in The Underground Railroad is outstanding. Each location is rendered with singularity, emphasising the sense and scale of our hero’s journey. Secondary, tertiary, and background characters are given individual attention with the lens; this attention, and thereby revealed interiority, demonstrates the scope of Whitehead’s story and that slavery was an institution that affected more than one kind of person.
Music conjures century-collapsing ties between then and now with an anachronistic end credit soundtrack featuring Outkast, The Pharcyde, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino. There are also fantastical elements which provide clues that things aren’t all they seem in Griffin, the city to which Cora and Caesar have first escaped. Composer and frequent Jenkins-collaborator Nicholas Britell (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) describes the music scoring the first time we see Cora walking through Griffin as ‘a musical universe I did not anticipate at all when we [referring to Jenkins] first started.’ The sound is playful and dream-like, which only serves to make Cora and Caesar’s discoveries about Griffin all the more unsettling.
With an exceptional cast and creative team, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of The Underground Railroad is a hallmark of how dramatisations of neo-slave narratives can be done. There is pain, yes, but there is also resilience, hope, nobility, and softness. The Underground Railroad is a thoughtful, considered, and arresting piece of visual storytelling.