The Underground Railroad review: Barry Jenkins’ fantasy series is a triumph – Polygon
In Barry Jenkins’ 10-hour historical fantasy miniseries The Underground Railroad, regret is generational, as easily passed down in a family as eye color or hair texture. The Underground Railroad, adapted by the Moonlight director from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel, takes place in antebellum Georgia. Yet it’d be a mistake to call the series a slave narrative. There’s only pain and suffering in a genre originally constructed to end slavery by explaining the horrors of plantation life to Northern white readers.
That gaze leapt from literature’s pages to dominate contemporary movie screens in films like Amistad, 12 Years a Slave, The Birth of a Nation, andAntebellum. Jenkins eliminates that gaze, using slavery as the canvas for a journey toward freedom, and not just from pernicious slave catchers and brutal masters — from that generational regret.
Cora was just 10 years old when her slave mother Mabel (Sheila Atim) left her, running from their plantation to the North, never to be seen again. That betrayal left a wound in the adult Cora (Thuso Mbedu), and rage festered there. Cora now considers her mother a monster, and herself a blight on the world. To complete her journey out of slavery, she has to escape not just the plantation, but the hate she’s latched onto Mabel. She must learn to forgive, and to see herself as whole again. For these reasons, Whitehead and Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad isn’t a story of dehumanization, but re-humanization.
As the series begins, the undaunted Caesar (a stunning Aaron Pierre) speaks of escape to Cora. His robust frame and piercing hazel eyes hide several truths: He can read, and he knows a way off the plantation. He wants Cora to join him, believing she holds her mother’s good luck. But she doesn’t consider herself special. Only after a string of horrifying events that make the series premiere the hardest episode to stomach does she accept Caesar’s gentle support and escape with him. Across the Georgia landscape, through thick woods and murky swamps — welcome reminders of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood — they perilously travel in search of a station house.
When I first heard the phrase “the underground railroad” as a child, I thought it was a literal locomotive churning under the surface, transporting Black people to salvation. Jenkins makes that fantasy a reality. In this fabled alternate universe, there’s a system of smartly dressed porters, dark tunnels, bending rails, and beautified trains, where mystical fairy dust seems to emanate from the locomotives’ hard-charging orange glow.
Some stations merely operate out of caves, while others are ornately tiled like New York City subway stations. Not every line connects. A terminal can be abandoned or deemed unsafe for travel, usually due to a rise in white racial violence in the area. Before a passenger may board the train, they must provide their testimony for the station master to record, in a ledger not unlike those used to track the sales of slaves at auctions.
While other filmmakers mold slave narratives around suffering in order to prove Black history’s worth — whether through shocking violence or jolting screams like the ones that dominate Antebellum — Jenkins stands unencumbered. It’s not that he’s abolishing the white gaze, or consciously speaking to a specific Black tenor. He tells a human story first, imbuing personhood in Cora’s sly smile and Caesar’s ardent orations. He knows their inherent importance will flow as naturally as water through a channel to the audience, making their obstacles all the more felt.
“Either promised land or dystopian hell” is how film professor Paula Massood once described Black literature’s attitudes toward the city. Likewise, the description applies to Cora’s journey westward, a Southern Gothic odyssey partly caused by infamous slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who failed to track down Mabel, and is now desperate to capture Cora. He’s accompanied by Homer (Chase W. Dillon), a precocious Black boy, dressed in a fine suit and mustard-yellow bowler hat. Their friendship mirrors that of Daniel Plainview and H.W. in There Will Be Blood: They’re business partners, in spite of their age difference. Ridgeway protects Homer from this ghastly landscape, teaching him how to catch slaves. Homer alerts his employer to any oncoming dangers.
Jenkins takes great pleasure in the added narrative and character range that television allows. A character like Ridgeway would normally be reduced to appearing as a maniac heel. Instead, Jenkins and his scripting team measure out this villain, filling in the blank spots in Ridgeway’s incongruities. For a three-episode stretch, you could almost fool yourself into believing this series solely concerns the slave catcher, rather than the way he grinds Cora westward toward escape. But Edgerton is so menacing and entrancing, and the young Dillon such a revelation, who could blame Jenkins for giving them screen space?
The cast overflows with so much new talent, including the warm, giving Pierre as Caesar, and the tender William Jackson Harper (The Good Place) as Royal, a cowboy and railroad officer drawn to Cora. Brief characters like Ellis (Marcus “MJ” Gladney Jr.), a conductor in training; Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), a North Carolina girl hiding in an attic; Jasper, a hymn-singing Floridian slave; and Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji), an upper-class former slave living on an Indiana farm, are unforgettable because Jenkins never loses their personhood. They might endure terrible hardships, but they find profound areas of happiness to remain immutable.
The scale of The Underground Railroad feels immeasurable. Each state Cora visits exudes a different timbre and tone, from lush to barren, and from verdant greens, maroon reds, warm marigolds, and deep, hugging blues to choked grays. Each setting teems with extras, creating a collage of costumes that evoke unwritten lifetimes for their wearers. In one fantastical scene, Cora visits a grand terminal whereupon Black folks of all disparate backgrounds, from the slave draped in field clothes to affluently dressed African Americans, coalesce on an otherworldly platform.
To capture the detailed saga, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton, a longtime collaborator, have pushed their visual acumen. Dynamic shots see the camera craning down from a high vantage point, seamlessly settling into the scene’s composition. Celestial light fills the frames, enveloping the people Cora should trust, as though the divine decides our view.
Weaving through the show’s slave narrative, the Southern Gothic tension, and the Western moods is Nicholas Britell’s levitating score. Jenkins and Britell are masters at creating tension in quiet scenes, like the Brian Tyree Henry sequence in If Beale Street Could Talk. A similar use of sound seems to lurk around every corner of The Underground Railroad, during Cora and Caesar’s run toward the station, or to accompany the restorative sight of a locomotive. The trilling of cicadas rises to thundering levels. Echoes of clanks barrel toward us as if we were in a cacophonous train tunnel. And soaring strings send us into flight.
The vastness of the series means you shouldn’t binge The Underground Railroad. It’s too narratively, visually, and sonically dense, too meticulously calibrated, too swamped in a syrupy mix of Southern dialects to appreciate in one consumption. You’d be better off watching one or two episodes a day, specifically by pairing the two-part state-named installments like “Tennessee” in a single sitting.
In fact, Jenkins is clearly aware of the difficulties attached to watching the heavy subject matter. It’s why he concludes each episode with a needle drop, playing Kendrick Lamar, Outkast, and so forth. InLovecraft Country, creator Misha Green regularly inserted present-day hits like “Bitch Better Have My Money” into the body of her 1950s stories. But those drops didn’t accomplish their desired effect; instead, they broke the illusion of the period piece. Jenkins, conversely, wants to shatter the fantasy, allowing audiences to leave this world undeterred and return safely to reality in the space of a song.
However weighty the miniseries feels, the audience never escapes the re-humanizing message Jenkins imparts. By taking this journey, Cora learns about the ordeals her mother probably confronted. By forgiving her mother, she re-humanizes herself, not unlike the way Chiron re-creates a tortured teen as a balanced adult in Moonlight. By showing the joy and laughter, the love and determination, mixed with the horrors, Jenkins turns historical slaves away from being suffering props for white consumption, and gives them dignity. In Thuso Mbedu’s resolute, sincere turn as Cora, she fills us with an equally unfathomable grace.
After enduring the grueling on-screen assault of Black characters in Antebellum, Bad Hair, Lovecraft Country, and Them, I wasn’t sure I could handle The Underground Railroad. So many others have failed to make slave stories about more than surviving indignity, humiliation, and pain. I feared Jenkins would too.
But I felt differently once I finished this mystical, surreal epic. I felt uplifted, unashamed to look this era of history in the eye. Without regret, I cheered. Cried. Hollered. I opened my arms like the tracks lighting the way to another land, a better land. That’s because of Jenkins’ care. And by The Underground Railroad’s conclusion, the final sun-soaked shot that filled me with peace, that fashions Black folks’ right to live as a manifest destiny, I was left with one thought — he actually did it. He really did it. Jenkins escaped the cycle of wearying torture stories, locating a tunnel free of the regrettable weight levied by Hollywood’s past mistakes.