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Review: ‘The Underground Railroad’ is heartbreaking and heavyweight

A true streaming milestone, Barry Jenkins’s ten-part slavery epic is essential viewing

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A small-screen masterpiece, Barry Jenkins’ ten-part book adaptation delivers a poetic, brutal excoriation of America’s racist past to throw a fierce light on its present

If it sounds damning to say that The Underground Railroad is emphatically not bingeable, it isn’t. Sure, you can binge it. The whole ten episode run is sitting on Amazon Prime right now ready to be wolfed down in its entirety – if you must. But trying to watch it in two, three or even four sittings is a lot. The bleakness will overwhelm the beauty; the flickers of hope that its creator, Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), has seeded throughout will be snuffed out amid its scorched landscapes and bursts of gut-churning violence. Each episode demands to be sat with, to be chewed over and discussed. Cumulatively, the effect is close to overwhelming. 

In fact, that unbingeability may be the highest praise you can offer Jenkins’ landmark television series, a delicate thread of interlocking narratives that follow an enslaved woman called Cora (Thuso Mbedu) as she escapes her Georgia plantation, killing a white teenager in self-defence as she does, and heads north. If there’s any justice – and the series suggests that there probably isn’t – this rich adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning book, a gorgeously rendered tale of American racism and human ugliness, as well as raw resilience, will find an audience for years to come.

As with Whitehead’s novel, the underground railroad itself is a metaphor made real here. IRL, the railroad was a network of conductors – most famously, Harriet Tubman – who helped spirit runaways out of the slave states and to the (relative) freedom of the north. Here, it’s a real place: a series of tunnels, tracks and secret entrances that transport the lucky few away from their cruel, racist plantation owners and their sunken-eyed, whip-brandishing overseers. With painterly compositions and eerie lighting, Jenkins imagines the railroad as a liminal space between slavery and freedom. It’s also a place where the story can take momentary refuge from its own horrors.

This landmark adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer winner should find an audience for years to come

There are frequent visits to these magical-realist-feeling caverns, tunnels and stations as it wends its way from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana (have a map handy), but most of The Underground Railroad plays out above ground. Here, Cora is pursued by a slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), for whom her capture – and that of her fellow runaway Caesar (Londoner Aaron Pierre) – becomes an almost spiritual pursuit. The fate of her mother (Londoner Sheila Atim), who fled the same plantation, ties the two together and becomes the series’ abiding mystery.

The cruelty on display is boundless. The first episode sets the tone with a horrific death scene that’s likely to recur in your nightmares. Whippings are shown in their full, flesh-tearing entirety. Brutal beatings are dished out, lives snuffed out on a whim, and one full-scale assault feels like it’s spilled out of Elem Klimov’s Holocaust classic Come and See. Black lives don’t matter in this abhorrent world and Jenkins is damned if he’s going to sugarcoat any of it.

The Underground Railroad
Photograph: Kyle KaplanRidgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his partner, Homer (Chase W Dillon)

But he also shows how the cancer of slavery consumes its host. The middle stretch (the bit where the binge viewer will begin to feel ground down) is a trudge through a burnt-out landscape where misery is a constant. Here, Jenkins’ leached-out palette suggests something almost post-apocalyptic. These Southern states have visited a moral ruin upon themselves that has infected the landscape. The monstrous Ridgeway is a creature of all this, and Jenkins and his five co-writers humanise him in order to condemn him more fully.

South African newcomer Mbedu is remarkable as Cora, but not a single note in a single performance rings false. Each episode brings new insights into the Black experience of 19th century America: its parlousness and despair, but also its sophistication, dreams and conflicts. Finding a place in this hostile land takes compromise and courage, but sometimes violence too. There is simply no escape from it. 

It’s tough going at times but beautiful with it, not just in Jenkins’ visual poetry and composer Nicholas Britell’s haunting motifs, but in its moments of humanity and defiance. Cora is a compelling figure to follow through this landscape because she ebbs and flows through her nine or so hours on screen (there’s a couple of shorter episodes that sketch out key secondary characters), sometimes buffeted by fate but often with agency to fight back against her circumstances. Her suffering never feels exploitative; sharing in it never feels like an intrusion on a private tragedy. This, The Underground Railroad makes clear, is humanity’s tragedy. 

On Amazon Prime now.

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