Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins, Jihan Crowther, Jacqueline Hoyt, Nathan Parker, Allison Davis, Adrienne Rush
Cast: Thuso Mbedu, Aaron Pierre, William Jackson Harper, Joel Edgerton, Chase Dillon
Cinematography: James Laxton
Editors: Joi McMillon, Alex O'Flinn, Daniel Morfesis
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
The protagonists of Barry Jenkins's movies may harbour secret dreams, but when they shut their eyes, only the nightmares come. In Moonlight (2016), Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is startled awake by the long-forgotten memory of his drug-addicted mother screaming at him. As Tish (Kiki Layne) drifts off in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), the gates of a railway station morph into prison bars, entrapping her fiance who's been falsely accused of rape. The Underground Railroad (2021), Jenkins's first foray into television, is a thematic continuation of his past work. For White men to grasp the American dream, their slaves are to live out an unending nightmare.
A resplendent adaptation of Colson Whitehead's 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the 10-episode Amazon Prime Video series follows Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), a slave born and raised at a cotton plantation in Georgia. Cora's sunken eyes and stooped shoulders signify not just the weight of her work, but that of a past betrayal — when she was a child, her mother fled the plantation alone, abandoning her to this fate. At the urging of fellow slave Caesar (a confident, sharp-eyed Aaron Pierre), the two run away together to the fabled underground railroad, a secret network of trains and conductors below the surface. A fantastical aspect of Whitehead's story, it's lent weight in the show through the urgency of those seeking it out and the fierce loyalty of those sworn to protect its secrets. An element of historical fantasy, it becomes a way to illustrate the nation's harsh realities.
Jenkins lets his visual language do the talking, inviting viewers to find the metaphors dotting his lush frames. Right from the first scene, Cora's escape is inevitable. The stunningly edited opening montage depicts her mother giving birth as a train rushes, headlights aglow, through the mouth of an underground tunnel, its darkened curvature like that of the womb. Both train and Cora will push through.
While other slave narratives focus on the dehumanization of their characters, the show is a collection of moments that make them human. Slow zooms reveal just how lonely a person can be while standing in a crowd. There's space for small joys, like the whispered flirtation between friends, the reassuring touch of a child's hand and the secret thrill of a book stashed away for furtive reading. When Cora flees in an attempt to escape enslavement, she follows her mother's footsteps but still can't outrun the sting of her betrayal.
Throughout the series, the camera is reflective, not exploitative. It sways as its characters do, it soars when they triumph and drops low when they're defeated. Its gaze as it captures the horrors that slaves endured — the whipping, the forced breeding, the immolation — is unflinching, but it doesn't treat their pain as the canvas on which to compose art. It's filmed in a way that's raw and terrifying, not stylized or manipulative. Cruelty lurks beneath the curl of a false smile just as easily as it does in the crack of a whip. But while pain is an undeniable part of Black lives, it isn't the totality of their lives. Jenkins makes this point by punctuating the end of each episode with a song, from Marvin Gaye's 'Wholy Holy' to Donald Glover's 'This Is America', an emphatic celebration of Black voices in a show that depicts how they were once silenced.
The cinematography reveals as much as it obscures. At the plantation, sunlight seeps through the top half of the frames, a glimpse at a world beyond this, an invitation to seek it out. Sometimes it burns so brightly, it blots out the characters' faces entirely, an Icarus-like omen warning them not to stray too close. When Cora reaches the underground railroad station, she lingers on the tracks, letting the glow of the approaching train headlights wash over her for as long as she can, that yellow warmth finally within grasp. "If you want to see what this nation's about, you got to ride the rails," a conductor tells Cora. "Just look outside as you speed through and you'll see the true face of America." It's a cruel joke — all there is outside is darkness. This isn't America's face, but it's black heart.
The extent of America's cruelties unravels as Cora travels from state to state, seeking refuge. In North Carolina, her bright yellow dress stands out against the muted background, a clue that even a more liberal state might not let her fit in completely. At her most desolate, she journeys through scorched Tennessee lands ravaged by wildfires, a bleak illustration of the hell she finds herself in. Cora is frequently in transit, each stop revealing the baggage she's accumulated along the way. Regrets bind her as iron shackles once did.
Deviations from the source material only enrich the show, deepening the relationships between characters and making their choices more poignant in hindsight. The 600-minute-long runtime and episodic format gives Jenkins room to cut away from the main plot and develop other rich narrative strands. The shortest episode, at just 19 minutes long, exists only to serve as a coda for a side character who was introduced a few episodes ago and doesn't exist in the book. That it feels welcome and not distracting is testament to Jenkins's storytelling abilities. Cora is afforded a small amount of closure that was denied to her in the book. And while the actions of slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) are never excused, a complex arc underscores how his motivations too stem from bitter betrayal.
This, however, is not a series that's meant to be binge-watched. It's a show made with care and patience, requiring care and patience to watch. Every episode leaves a mark. Over 10 hours, Jenkins and his team of writers pull off a startling technical and emotional achievement. Cora's journey is one of pain and sacrifice. It's also one of triumph.