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The Spirit of Barry Jenkins’s ‘The Underground Railroad’

The Amazon adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel attempts to answer questions art rarely does

Cody Pearson/Prime Video

“The first and last thing my mother gave me was apologies,” rues the runaway Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu) in her first words on Amazon’s The Underground Railroad. She stands in front of a pond, its water brown and steaming, framed by tree branches, their form barren and sinewy. She’s looking dead through the screen and her eyes are filled to the brim with anger and exhaustion and, most of all, hurt.

Cora’s referring to her mother, Mabel. The matriarch had appeared via wordless flashback a few moments earlier and is effectively gone (but always felt) until another extended remembrance in the final episode of the Barry Jenkins–directed miniseries. Cora believes her mother abandoned her. As the story goes Mabel fled the Randall plantation when her daughter was little, not a thought as to the fate of her own child alone in the bowels of Georgia. The truth is, of course, far more gutting. She did run but not from Cora—and she would’ve come back, even tried to, but couldn’t. She got stopped and was never heard from again.

Considering the rest of The Underground Railroad’s opening sequence—the premiere begins with a prologue of images and moments, accompanied by Nicholas Britell’s throbbing score, which combine to unveil the vitals of the narrative—it’s ironic that the facts of Mabel’s exodus don’t come to light until the last chapter in the series. Her fate is one of a select few revelations hidden within the show, which follows Cora as she attempts to flee slavery on a network of underground trains that operate throughout a fictional and timeless American South. From the very onset of the series, Jenkins has little interest relying solely on the appeal of mystery or the techniques of modern horror. The Underground Railroad is a slave epic fashioned entirely around the minds, emotions, and desires of its characters. It is a tale concerned not with what will or could happen in worlds like these, but more vitally, what does.

The series and its source text, written by the two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient Colson Whitehead, are links in a chain that reaches back to the birth of the peculiar institution itself. Slavery has been a topic of the American artistic canon for as long as a canon has existed. The format shifts—autobiography, fiction, film, television—but the setting is always vaguely familiar.

Viewers know the beats, the environments, and the language well enough to say that some version of everything depicted in a slave narrative is true enough. The prickly questions of the contemporary genre—the ones that are rarely answered because they’re hard things to answer but also because they take a certain skill set to pull off—are: What was life for the enslaved? How did it feel? Yes, how did it hurt, but also just as much, how did it thrill, enchant, sweeten? That Jenkins lands a response to these queries—one equally brutal, bright, confounding, and exact—is the true marvel of The Underground Railroad.

Cora’s quest to smuggle herself from the maw of antebellum bondage is depicted over 10 disparate episodes, all released last Friday to Amazon Prime. At every move, she is shadowed by the ghoulish slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who holds it as “a personal injury” that he never captured Mabel and serves as a constant reminder of Cora’s proximity to servitude. Like the book, the show leans into both the mythical and literal. When asked of the underground railroad’s origin by Cora’s first companion, Caesar (Aaron Pierre), a station agent replies, simply, “Who builds anything in this country?”

Each destination along the runaway’s journey is a collage of past and present, blurring the lines between the varying incarnations of U.S. white supremacy. In South Carolina, a regime of sterilization and Tuskegee-like biological experiments is implemented, hidden, and excused in the name of white scientism. In North Carolina a trail lined by poplars blooming with mutilated Black corpses stands as a monument to a fanatical crusade at racial purification in the state. In Tennessee a sea of freshly stolen Native land is blighted, ashen, and engulfed in flame. Ridgeway worships “the American imperative,” the doctrine connecting each of these portals. He refers to it with reverence, defining it as the commitment “to conquer and build and civilize. Lift up the lesser races. And if not lift up, subjugate; and if not subjugate, exterminate.”

For as much as The Underground Railroad is driven by the physical act of escape, it is deferential to those caught in the web of slavery and white violence. In one of the more brutal scenes in the show’s premiere, a runaway is burned alive while a collection of planter barons and debutantes sip tea. As the flame begins to roar the camera shifts, as if to depict the act of terror from the eyes of its victim. In the fifth episode Cora meets a runaway who starves himself to death rather than be returned to slavery. While hidden in a station agent’s false ceiling in North Carolina, Cora opts to sacrifice herself in an attempt to save another young runaway from detection.

The later episodes of the series are filled with moments of disgust and melancholy over abandonment, anguish, and resignation at the undying nature of American racism, and yet they also show euphoria in a lovers’ embrace while dancing, renewal in sowing and harvesting the earth. Both in flashbacks and in each new chapter viewers can see how Black life is besieged by the pervasiveness of enslavement but like a vine finds new rays of light to grow toward. The story is, in this way, a tale of parents and children, brothers and sisters, lovers and friends. How they choose to live, often under circumstances that make choice nearly impossible, is as much the focus of the series as the quest for freedom.

The close-up, Jenkins’s long-established tool of choice, serves as a window directly into the minds of these characters. A sullen glare while enwrapped in the menial and mundane; a knowing nod from a companion in arms; a slow overhead shot of a community that should not exist, cannot exist, and yet somehow does. Dotted amid the narrative, they are balms to the weary onlooker. Even the land itself—the dead buried in it, the living forced to till it, the sound of the earth and animals—is upheld in reverence. A series of such length could be overwhelming, gluttonous in the hands of another guide. The deft mind of the auteur ensures a revelation.

There is a message from the inimitable novelist Toni Morrison’s essay “The Site of Memory” that I found myself pulled toward in digesting The Underground Railroad. She talks about water (the currents of the Mississippi River) and writers (their abilities to channel something lost), but really she’s speaking about artists, namely those, like her, born from the resolve of enslaved people. The Mississippi wanders, like all tributaries, shifting steadily in different directions over time. When white settlers moved westward, they dammed the river to ensure more real estate was available for incoming émigrés. “Occasionally the river floods these places,” Morrison writes. “‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be.”

All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared.

The Underground Railroad is that rare piece of art that is capable of channeling something that was lost. Not a history—that is beyond the scope of any kind of art and also a waste of it. Jenkins’s latest work aims to recapture life. It should not have to be that to be worthy of airing. It is, after all, just a TV show. But this is America, and this is pop culture, and these things always end up meaning more than they should because, given the baggage—four centuries, split at the near midway point by a civil war—how could they not?

The show is not an easy watch. In an era of death and violence captured via cell phone, there will be a desire to eschew such a tale. But then it would not be true if it were not brutal. The lives of the enslaved were traumatic. And yet they were not just that. It is the work of the artist to fill in the gaps, to reanimate a people stolen, lives stolen, and show all of them— their contradictions, their highs and lows, their essence. The Underground Railroad’s crowning achievement is that it serves as witness to a multitude.

Toward the end of the first episode of the series, Cora wanders beneath the earth in a gaping cavern that holds the first railroad stop on her journey. She ventures below the station platform, right onto the soot-blackened tracks, and holds her ear over the metallic railroad bars. While she captures the faint but oncoming chug of a freedom train, her companion Caesar endeavors to fill out their biographies on a passenger logbook. The station agent wants to know who they are, where they’ve been—the outline of their lives. Caesar doesn’t understand. Offscreen, as if sketching the beauty of the series itself, the station agent responds, “How else will we account for the souls entrusted to this campaign?”