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Resist the Impulse to Label ‘The Underground Railroad’ As Trauma Porn

Barry Jenkins’s Amazon series faces the same common complaints about stories on slavery and, more broadly, “Black trauma.” But there’s a significant difference in approach that offers timeless insights into humanity and democracy.

Scott Laven/Amazon

The Underground Railroad follows two enslaved people, Cora and Caesar, slipped from bondage on a plantation in Georgia and hitching north toward freedom on the titular route through the Carolinas. The slave catcher Ridgeway and his young, Black assistant, Homer, pursue Cora and Caesar with shocking persistence and devotion—even for, yes, a professional slave catcher. Though he pursues other slaves, too, Ridgeway won’t rest until he drags Caesar and Cora back to hell.

The series proposes an alternative history of slavery and segregation in the U.S. For instance, North Carolina opted to enslave the Irish and ban Black people altogether in order to maintain the state’s “purity,” so even a freedman’s discovery in North Carolina means certain death. The states in The Underground Railroad each represent different phases of desegregation in the real U.S., so Cora and Caesar ride the rails of U.S. history from the antebellum phase through the collapse of Reconstruction. The end credits for each episode spin the viewer’s historical awareness forward with modern musical cues; “Bombs Over Baghdad,” “Runnin’,” “This Is America,” etc. Director Barry Jenkins isn’t being trite. He isn’t trivializing the political progress from past to present. Rather, The Underground Railroad casts racism as a specter stalking its runaways through history, perhaps indefinitely.

The Underground Railroad, adapted from Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel, met some trepidation even before its release on Amazon. The comment section on the listing for The Underground Railroad hosts so many common complaints about the show’s historical inaccuracy, its graphic violence, and its suitability in the larger tradition of stories about U.S. slavery and, speaking even more broadly, “Black trauma.” Mind you, The Underground Railroad reimagines the famous abolitionist network as a literal subterranean locomotive route, serviced by whims of magical realism and presented in the television adaptation with a slight anime stylishness in its operation. It’s damn near impossible for anyone who watches the series to conflate The Underground Railroad and Roots.

But sure: It’s called “The Underground Railroad,” it’s a period drama, and it’s got all the costumes, accents, and brutality that you’d expect to see in such a project. It also has captivating camerawork, great characters, tremendous performances, thoughtful storytelling, and a gorgeous score. But otherwise, The Underground Railroad suffers from a certain exasperation in pockets of its audience. “Slavery” is shorthand for a 250-year stretch of national history; and yet for dramatic purposes, “slavery” has come to mean a very narrow assortment of tropes and arguments adapted in a dreary sepia tone. Even Antebellum, with its ludicrous plot twist, couldn’t shake the vibe of a homework assignment. Stories about “Black trauma” beyond slavery extend the tropes but also the exhaustion. Them, hyper-stylized to a fault, sent me into a critical stupor. But the problem with Antebellum wasn’t slavery, and the problem with Them wasn’t “Black trauma.” The problem with these projects was that they were obnoxious. The problem with the worst projects in any genre is rarely the subject, and almost always the approach.

There’s no shortage of genre variety in the way of Black entertainment. No one’s forcing anyone to binge shows about “Black trauma.” The urge to watch them is somewhat disconnected from the urge to get them made. Whitehead is a great Black author, Jenkins is a mighty Black director, and Amazon Studios is a softened white conscience now seeking Black “content.” You’re hearing reports of some sort of racial reckoning, you need to start taking Black people seriously, and what’s more serious than slavery and “Black trauma”? But “Black trauma” also happens to be an explosive substance, agitated by the very mainstream attention and investment that some have tirelessly sought. So here we are in the comments section of a great miniseries having an argument about the merits of mainstream commercial validation for the so-called Black experience. It’s a strange thing to be discussing, understandable on some level but then also horrifying once you consider the deeper sociological issues. The problem isn’t locating “Black trauma” in popular entertainment. The problem is locating one’s self-esteem there. You’ll never be happy.

With all its might, The Underground Railroad resists the classification of “trauma porn.” It’s sad, and it’s violent, but it’s also consistently—frankly —fun to contemplate. How will Cora manage to survive the next hour, and where in the U.S. might she find ultimate freedom? And what the fuck is Ridgeway’s problem? It’s ambitious enough to interrogate a wide slice of U.S. history through ahistorical shenanigans but also disciplined enough (unlike Antebellum or Them) to do right by its characters. The history is fascinating if you let it be. The logic of chattel slavery was so transparently and elaborately psychotic, and yet that logic scaled and spanned three hemispheres. The human capacity and passion for such a monstrous state of affairs, instituted for a quarter of a millennium, didn’t just evaporate into space once everyone encountered Frederick Douglass and the Quakers.

Chattel slavery took many revisions over several centuries and captivated partisans of various persuasions, and no one milestone dissolved the infrastructure, logic, and appeal. Where did the political will for slavery go? You think it’s easy for everyone to rest assured that it’s entirely gone and never revisits its descendants? That’s the big, dreadful mystery that The Underground Railroad poses about the demise of slavery in the U.S.: What changed, what didn’t, where, why, and are you sure? The U.S. didn’t invent human brutality but its founding triggered a profound contradition in its committments to freedom and slavery. That contradiction contains so many timeless insights into humanity and democracy. But now too many subfactions in modern politics think they’re too good for these particular questions about U.S. history, either because they already watched Amistad and now they’re tired or because they’re convinced that anyone eager to discuss slavery at this point is trying to smuggle “critical race theory” into a lunchbox.

If the moral catastrophe in our national origin story doesn’t captivate you on some level, even after all these years, then your mind is closed. But I get a certain level of aggravation with the subject, I really do. Pride turns to defensiveness. Urgency turns to exhaustion. It’s hard to see us so easily and frequently reduced to sad, scarred stooges, wearing beige cloth or nothing at all, in the same old morality play. But it doesn’t have to be the same old morality play. The Underground Railroad takes great pains to reinvigorate the history with novel mischief while preserving the real, underlying enigma. It’s not Black trauma. It’s not even U.S. history, so conspicuously revised in The Underground Railroad. It’s human nature and its perverse role in devising monstrous treatment. And what are we now? Weary philosophers? Who are any of us to say we’ve seen and understood enough?