“The first and last thing my mama gave me was apologies,” are the first words uttered in The Underground Railroad, the new 10-part alternative history drama from Oscar winning Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, and they couldn’t be a more direct statement for what this series is concerned with.
Why? Well, because as much as the Amazon Prime series, based on Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel of the same name, puts an unflinching eye on the trauma of slavery in the US during the early to mid-1800s, it is also an exploration of familial trauma and how it can manifest in unpleasant and unhealthy ways.
Watch the trailer for The Underground Railroad below:
South African actor Thuso Mbedu makes a profound impact as lead protagonist Cora, an enslaved young woman on a Georgia plantation filled with anger and resentment for her mother after she ran away years earlier, leaving her to fend for herself. It was certainly a dog-eat-dog existence for their enslaved community; they might sing together, pick cotton together and eat together but the reality is that these people are doing what it takes to survive and experience the least amount of pain – even if it means serving each other up for pain or punishment by their cruel white masters to avoid it themselves.
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After finding herself at the mercy of the whipping post, Cora soon witnesses the full weight of her master’s inhumanity and runs away with Caesar (Aaron Pierre), an enslaved man who can read, to find the eponymous transport. Magical realism brings the very real network of abolitionists, hidden routes, and safe houses to life but transforms it into a subterranean train system with stations, engineers, conductors, tracks, and tunnels to take escaped African-Americans to safer regions in the north.
But Cora’s pursuit of freedom is dogged by notorious slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his Black child side-kick Homer (Charles W. Dillon) who, like Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, will not stop until he catches his target.
Most of the episodes take the name of the state Cora journeys to; South Carolina has a sinister, almost Twilight Zone quality as it deals with the terror of eugenics while North Carolina is steeped in puritanical piety and nods its head to Holocaust dramas and the story of Anne Frank.
Others like The Great Spirit and Mabel focus a lens on Ridgeway and Cora’s mother (Sheila Atim) offering deep poignancy to give greater understanding of their motivations and the knock on effect that has on Cora’s life. And Fanny Briggs delivers a late-stage moment of uplift for a young girl that adds to the already contemporary perspective used to examine the historic treatment of Black women.
Jenkins often takes an unsentimental attitude to depicting the events of this ugly era of history, and there are some truly horrific sights to behold, but in approaching a time so wrapped up in the black and whiteness of its inhabitants, he and cinematographer James Laxtan make powerful use of light and shade to ensure moments of beauty can be found.
As such, vignettes filled with sunlight and lens flares flooding its subjects are frequently employed, as are tableaux vivants whereby characters silently gaze into the camera, forcing you to make eye contact and acknowledge both their existence and humanity. Brilliant use of colour and symmetry also add to the narrative threads pushing the story forward and Cora closer to freedom of circumstance and from mental strife. Of course, physical and inherited trauma is not something people can switch off, but this series wants you to believe that there can be light at the end of the tunnel and it might just be a train that delivers you from darkness.
Jenkins and his writing team, including The Man In the High Castle writer Jihan Crowther and The Leftovers’ scribe Jacqueline Hoyt, have impressively delivered an ensemble of three-dimensional characters viscerally realised by the stellar cast he has brought on board. As they’ve been saying recently on Twitter, each actor – from Will Poulter and Lily Rabe to William Jackson Harper and Peter Mullan – understood the assignment, but none more so than Edgerton and Mbedu.
The pair eat up every moment they are onscreen but especially when they are sparring against each other the tension, rage and power evoked can put the viewer on edge. For these are hard times and their characters are hardened individuals unpacking the trauma of subjugation, racism, misogyny, abandonment and, of course, oppression.
Ultimately, Jenkins is painting an alternative picture of that harrowing period in American history. The Underground Railroad does not shy away from the myriad horrors inflicted on African-Americans by white colonisers but neither does it languish in their pain and suffering by offering a very human view of a marginalised people whose lives, feelings, experiences and perspective, especially that of Black women, are central to the portrait.
It’s 10 hours of operatic storytelling, making powerful use of sound texture, gorgeous lighting, searing cinematography and Nicholas Brittel’s vibrating score, and one can’t help but marvel at Jenkins’ composition.
Images: Amazon Studios