Barry Jenkins’ ‘The Underground Railroad’ Weaves a Dark Poem of Our American Past

Among American directors Barry Jenkins stands as a true poet of the screen. His work seeks to evoke rather than just tell. Watching a Jenkins film is akin to being immersed in hypnotic music or immersive literature. With “The Underground Railroad,” Jenkins is given limitless space now for his vision. This Amazon series based on the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead defies the conventional idea of a limited serial. Each episode is not only like a chapter, but very much like mini-films. The material is so rich and the structure so detailed, with a pacing that refuses to ever rush, that periodic viewing might be preferable to one straight binge.

This story is a journey that begins with a slave named Cora (Thuso Mbedu), who we first meet on a slave plantation in Georgia. Cora is surrounded by the brutality of the Antebellum South. Another slave, Caesar (Aaron Pierre), tries to convince Cora they should run away, but at first she refuses. Her own mother is renowned in these parts, both by the enslaved and their masters, for having vanished years ago, apparently escaping somehow. But when the brutality on the plantation does become too much, Cora relents and she and Caesar flee with the help of those secretly connected to an “underground railroad,” in this case a literal one running through an intricate tunnel system. Once Cora and Caesar get on the train, after a bloody confrontation with their former owners, they proceed onto a journey through the very heart of the United States and its racist society. But pursuing them is Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), an obsessed slave hunter who will go from town to town, city to city until he captures Cora.

Episodic television fiction has become a powerful tool to dissect and explore America’s racist past and how it continues to spill in many ways into contemporary society. While other shows like “Lovecraft Country” and “Them” have used fantasy and horror in creative ways to touch on the theme of history, Jenkins’ is the grandest and richest effort. This also makes it more difficult to instantly take in. Jenkins and the writing team have produced a work that is meaningful and quite dense. They maintain the alternate history style of Whitehead’s novel, reimagining the underground railroad as not only a secret program to free slaves, but as a literal train system that serves as a guide through 19th century America. But this is not a fully accurate representation of the country in terms of literal history. Instead alternate realities are invented to convey more bluntly, and horrifically, the very spirit of a racist society. In the third episode Cora finds herself in a North Carolina where Blacks have been completely outlawed. To make the point the white citizens have lined the roads leading into the state with hanging Black victims, and it is a hauntingly searing image. 

Each stop along the journey Cora takes says something different about the racist forces and social divisions that have shaped the United States. It all begins unforgettably enough with the first episode set in Georgia, where a brutal slave master oversees breeding among the slaves and sets on fire anyone who tries to escape. Like few directors, Jenkins captures the very nature of a savage aristocracy in a shot of a hanging slave in flames as white plantation owners dine and dance in their plush lawn. Caesar is secretly literate and hides his copy of “Gulliver’s Travels.” And when the two escape they do seem to find freedom in the deceptive refined city of Griffin, South Carolina. This episode verges on classic horror as Caesar and Cora seem to be accepted into a white, liberal society but soon discover there are darker, horrible truths afoot involving medical experiments and other abuses. Sometimes liberal facades hide a racism less blunt than in the slaver zones, but just as cruel. This point is brought home in how Cora finds work as a free woman…by playing an African in an obviously racist museum performance show about the slave trade.

 Tennessee and Indiana will also follow, each with their own threats and discoveries. Cora will meet characters that are heroic, like Martin (Damon Herriman), who tries to keep Cora hidden in an attic despite the protests of his wife. This story also has a heartbreaking character in Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), a small girl also hiding in the secret room above the attic. Jenkins has few romantic views towards history and this particular episode closes with a wrenching series of twists that look at the violence of racism straight in the eye. Earlier the racist overlords of Martin’s town hold a book burning ceremony while reciting Biblical verse, filmed with a frightening, dreamlike cadence that also evokes those famous images of book burnings in Nazi Germany. A counter to Grace is Homer (Chase Dillon), a small, sharply-dressed Black boy who is Ridgeway’s stern right hand. Dillon’s performance is so good he projects more authority and cunning than a 40-year-old actor.

As with Jenkins’ cinema, “The Underground Railroad” is emotionally piercing but visually rhapsodic. Entire moments look lifted from what we consider to be classic images of America’s past, but lit with baroque, gothic intensity. Jenkin’s Oscar-winning “Moonlight” turned an urban story into a lush melody of hidden feelings, while his 2018 adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” confronted racism with an overpowering romance. He lets scenes flow with actual rhythm. “The Underground Railroad” has moments that are gorgeous and moving on their own, like Cora standing by a tree and staring into a river, or the terrible, contemplating eyes of a racist by firelight. It’s never rushed and viewers used to fast-paced entertainment may grow impatient with Jenkins’ style, which could easily be compared here with the works of Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick. 

There is a reckoning going on in entertainment when it comes to dealing with the foundations of the United States, which were built on the enterprise of slavery. A series like “The Underground Railroad,” featuring Thuso Mbedu in a lead performance of towering strength, is the most penetrating kind of drama when it comes to this exploration. By using a poetic voice in his style, Jenkins brings out the human toll of oppression, and the sheer madness of hate. The music by Jenkins’ regular collaborator Nicholas Britell is full of elegant sorrow (the end credits tend to close on more upbeat pop and hip-hop selections). Do not rush into this series, but sink into it. Such matters of the heart and suffering, the very roots of our society, deserve contemplation. 

The Underground Railroad” begins streaming May 14 on Amazon Prime Video.