Director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s prizewinning novel The Underground Railroad (Amazon) is as unbearably bleak, brutal, and brilliant as the book. “The Underground Railroad” is the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave on a Georgia plantation in the mid-1800s who escapes with another slave named Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and finds her way to the Underground Railroad, reimagined here as an actual rail system complete with conductors, engineers, and trains. In the premiere, Cora is told that she will see America as she looks out the window of the train, and the arc of the series fulfills that in a sense as she's taken across the country, first to a community that seems safer but harbors dark secrets and through the heartland of the nation in a way that makes her confront her past and future. A vicious slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) tracks her, but “The Underground Railroad” is more than a mere chase story. The overall arc of Cora’s narrative ebbs and flows through viciously realistic violence and into more dreamlike fantasies and back again.
Films and shows about slavery are emotionally challenging, to say the least, and intentionally infuriating. Like 12 Years a Slave, the cruelty is unsparing on purpose. You’re meant to wince and shudder because this is what actually happened to enslaved Black people.
Every performance resonates in “The Underground Railroad” but it’s Mbedu who's asked to carry most of the production, and she delivers. It’s a very subtle performance that grows in strength, and it was smart to cast newcomers as Cora and Caesar. (Pierre is excellent too.) Jenkins has such an eye for young Black talent, as evidenced by his ensembles in “Moonlight” and “Beale Street.” That hasn’t changed. He also directs more familiar faces like Peter Mullan, Damon Herriman, and William Jackson Harper to fantastic supporting performances, and gets the best work yet in the underrated career of Joel Edgerton, who deftly avoids humanizing a monster too much and yet makes him feel three-dimensional at the same time.
What’s so striking about “The Underground Railroad” is how richly it captures the interiority of its characters, no matter how much time they’re given. Cora steers nearly every episode, which provides the talented newcomer Mbedu ample time to push her freedom-seeking journeywoman through staggering emotional terrain; with little-to-no overt exposition, Cora’s choices always add up, even as her internal progression grows more complex by the day. The sturdy episodic arcs allow Jenkins to dip into other people’s stories, including an astounding, unexpected three-part arc for Ridgeway, of all people. Edgerton deserves as much credit as his crew for avoiding the pitfalls common to villains of the antebellum South; framed as Cora’s unwanted savior as often as her unrelenting hunger, there’s fiery guilt driving this complicated slave catcher, and Edgerton — along with his amateur partner Homer, played with maturity beyond his years by Chase Dillon — softens and hardens his antagonist with enough regularity to keep audiences from knowing what to expect, yet still knowing Ridgeway on a human level.
There is a worthy debate regarding Black trauma being used for storytelling, whether for entertainment or even news such as the eternal loop of the murder of George Floyd. It’s safe to assume that Barry Jenkins and his partners had this conundrum in mind when producing this series. In depicting one of America’s original sins – one in which the effects still impact the nation today – entertainment in these moments is less about inspiration or humor, and much more about demanding empathy and understanding from viewers (most especially white viewers). Despite the promise of this fictionalized literal railroad, The Underground Railroad punches you in the gut repeatedly because it’s rooted in America’s dark and unresolved past.
Final Score – [8.5/10]
Reviewed by – Ritika Kispotta
Follow her @KispottaRitika on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KispottaRitika)
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