The Underground Railroad curves its way through an alternative history of slavery

Barry Jenkins’s ten-chapter adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winner Colson Whitehead’s novel is breathtaking storytelling – even its luxurious length means some uneven stretches.

The Underground Railroad (2021)

▶︎ The Underground Railroad (10 episodes) is on Amazon Prime from 14 May.

Barry Jenkins’s first TV project, and second adaptation, offers two iconoclasts for the price of one. Colson Whitehead, author of the multiple award-winning 2016 source novel, is to literature what Jenkins is to film: both classicists and revisionists, they simultaneously draw from and invert the strongest storytelling traditions.

The key questions here are: can Jenkins’s lushly sequenced and elliptical depictions of Black life work for the small screen? Answer: absolutely – in fact, this might be the most gorgeous television you’ve ever seen so, be warned, laptop viewing won’t do.

Next, can Jenkins, auteur turned showrunner, stretch to meet TV’s elongated time frame? Answer: for the most part, very well, but some choices trouble the rhythm.

The Underground Railroad is a devastating yet exalting slave epic thanks to slyly shot-through speculative fiction elements. Doe-eyed Thuso Mbedu plays our hero Cora, in a mesmerising debut performance confirming Jenkins’s astute gift for discovering talent. Cora is an irascible enslaved woman living in Georgia, who harbours rage toward her mother Mabel for running away and abandoning her as a child. Her antagonist, the bounty-hunter Ridgeway (a melancholic Joel Edgerton), is also mad at Mabel for being the one that got away. So when Cora runs, Ridgeway is determined that history will not repeat itself.

Thuso Mbedu as Cora in The Underground Railroad

Thus begins a strange cat-and-mouse journey across the Southern states, as Cora is spirited away by the mysterious Underground Railroad. Cora’s handsome, literary lover Caesar (a captivating performance by Aaron Pierre), introduces her to the service, and convinces her to run when their brutal new plantation master hangs, whips and burns a man alive on his lawn for the amusement of his lunching guests.

The underground railroad in reality was a clandestine network of people and safehouses that helped the enslaved reach freedom. In this world, the railroad is an actual train network that secretes runaway ‘souls’ to the north. When Cora begins wonderingly to inspect the railway sleepers that line an eerie, earthy cavern, the slave story we have grown to expect begins to slip deliciously sideways.

Thuso Mbedu as Cora in The Underground Railroad

Most of the episodes – or chapters, as they are called – start by announcing our arrival in a new American state. After the horrors of Georgia, how delightful then to find Cora and Caesar, coiffed and fancily dressed, walking freely around a racially integrated fantasy town in South Carolina. Yes, Cora has to undergo compulsory gynaecological examinations and her tedious job is re-enacting plantation life for white visitors in a museum. Sure, the men are forced to take mysterious pills. But Black men and women here seem to be cared for, so maybe Cora and Caesar can finally settle down and raise a family. That is, until they discover that the dangers lurking beneath this town’s progressive façade might be more acute than the ones they have been fleeing, and they are forced to run again.

Cora does not know whether terror or joy is waiting for her when she disembarks, and neither do we. This high-stakes, trippy ride provides a powerful enough engine for a series – it’s the kind of revised historical retelling that we have grown to love in series such as Lovecraft Country. 

Aaron Pierre as Caesar in The Underground Railroad

A shame, then, that the propulsion begins to flag when we shift to Ridgeway’s story. In Chapter 4, The Great Spirit, we flash back to his youth. Just previously, Cora had endured a harrowing experience at the hands of the religious Knight Rider community, and the tonal shift is welcome. Fred Hechinger’s depiction of a young Ridgeway is a series highlight: unable to feel the ‘Great Spirit’ himself, while his benign, progressive father (a pitch-perfect performance by Peter Mullan) senses it in his free Black workers, the boy is inspired to a jealousy and increasing cruelty toward Black people. 

As a standalone episode, this segue would have been interesting enough. However, when the following two episodes continue to centre Ridgeway’s journey, as he leads Cora and a hunger-striking man across the hellishly scorched forests of Tennessee and back into his past, the pace falters. This sidestep also threatens to manoeuvre Ridgeway into the position of protagonist, relegating Cora to onlooker. By the third hour of this, I was itching to get back on to Cora’s story train. Jenkins said that a TV series would allow him to slow parts of the story down, but I wished he had sped this section up.

Chase W. Dillon as Homer and Joel Edgerton as Ridgeway in The Underground Railroad

Overall, though, the series is a boundary-pushing triumph. Each episode works as a unique masterclass in tone, performance and construction. Jenkins’s work has so far been set in urban locations, but the Georgia episode shows he is perhaps more alive in the natural world. Cinematographer James Laxton bathes us in light as he shoots directly into the sun, creating a dreamy luminosity. Constable could have painted the cotton fields, the colouration is so sublime.

The production design is the star in the South Carolina episode, hair, costume, architecture, choreography building a seductive world, while austere, candlelit North Carolina is an advanced study in chiaroscuro. The Great Spirit episode uses the layered soundscape to best effect. Amplified sounds are periodically muffled to illustrate the increasing disconnection of young Ridgeway’s world.

These ten hours cement Jenkins’s leadership in creating immersive, sensuous environments that allow actors to do some of their best work. Those of us who have waited with bated breath for his latest revelation can now exhale, thoroughly satisfied.

Further reading

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