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Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins’ next project is Amazon Prime Video series The Underground Railroad. Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 novel, and starring Thuso Mbedu, Chase W Dillon, Joel Edgerton and Aaron Pierre, all 10 episodes of the show will be released on May 14.

What’s it about?

Set in an alternate historical timeline, the series follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a teenager born and enslaved at a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, abandoned her to flee years ago and was never caught. No one else at the plantation is as lucky. The master, Terrance, is cruel and routinely orders that the slaves be whipped, tortured and hanged for their insubordination. The slaves try to find joy where they can, like gathering for small birthday parties even though none of them know when they were born or how old they are, but know deep down there is no lasting reprieve from either toil or torture.

Persuaded by her friend Caesar one night, Cora and he flee towards the fabled underground railroad — a covert system of tracks and tunnels, conductors and engineers working below the surface. (This is a more literal interpretation of the underground railroad, which in actuality was a network of activists and safe houses.) Cora and Caesar make their way to South Carolina, a more liberal state, where they’re given fresh identities, jobs and a small measure of happiness.

Soon, however, they discover they’re being pursued by expert bounty hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton). Mabel was the only slave Ridgeway was ever unable to catch, which explains his fixation with Cora. Now, she must once again risk travel from state to state, via the underground railroad, to evade him. While the travel is highly organized, the need for absolute secrecy means the slaves don’t know which state they’ll end up in, and it might be one far worse than the one they’re in.

Why you need to know Barry Jenkins’s work

The Underground Railroad is director Barry Jenkins’ first foray into television. He’s previously directed three features — Medicine for Melancholy (2008), the Academy Award-winning Moonlight (2016) and its follow-up If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) — and won the Academy Award For Best Adapted Screenplay with Moonlight. His work filters Black issues through an empathetic gaze. Moonlight touches upon the devastating effects of drugs in Black communities, but as a means of telling a moving coming-of-age story of a young boy discovering his sexuality. In If Beale Street Could Talk, a young Black man is falsely accused of rape and must fight to prove his innocence, but it’s the love story between him and his fiance that gives the film its heart.

What are critics saying about the show?

The show currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with reviews from 18 critics. The Hollywood Reporter’s Dan Fienberg calls it, “challenging, binge-worthy interplay of standalone incidents, look-away unpleasantness that demands full immersion, denied emotional payoffs and unexpected catharsis.”  London Evening Standard’s Katie Rosseinsky describes it as a “staggering achievement, one that for many directors would be their defining work.”

Recommendation in collaboration with Amazon Prime Video

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