The Underground Railroad: Victorious

4 June, 2021

Without being in any way familiar with Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, midway through last month, I set out to read a couple of reviews, some of them diagonally, about Barry Jenkins’ adaptation. All of them were eulogistic in tone, and noting – amongst other aspects – its extraordinary direction, exceptional acting performances, the fact that it was striking, heart-breaking, challenging; even that it’s the kind of series to turn one’s insides out, profoundly shaking its audience with its masterful skills, and so on. Some even go as far as to name it the latest American masterpiece. I was still rather skeptical – I feared that I would end up watching an extended version of Steve McQueen’s 2013 triple-Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave. In other words, a ten-hour series that would encompass themes such as suffering, humiliation, and survival. I also read and listened to a couple of interviews with filmmaker Barry Jenkins, in which he spoke of his wish to adapt Whitehead’s novel in the form of a series, rather than a feature-length film. And the choice he went for proves to be particularly insightful.

Still, going for a (mini-)series is not necessarily a better option than a feature film. One runs the risk, despite wanting to serve the best interests and energies possible, to offer certain actions and spaces in which characters are to be developed a little more time than necessary. Sometimes, even way too much time. The tendency to focus on the profound (?!) level at which one character or another is developing over the course of a series can prove itself to be a trap. A better understanding of certain principles or intentions which guide a certain character, with everything that leads up to their entire existence, is not necessarily something that is measured in time. It’s quite possible for us to witness a useless extension of their very existence – through the various desperate measures that are at times deployed in series, these characters are at times much too stretched out. However, Barry Jenkins knows exactly the stages through which he must pass his characters, and thus, there is always something new and surprising lying at the core of their representation. Most of the series itself seems to be centered around an appropriate elaboration of said characters – which is something that I will try to insist upon in the following paragraphs.

The Underground Railroad is, literally, a secret train that was built underground by entire generations of slaves that came before the central character, Cora (Tsuo Mbedu). It connects with other states and serves as a quick method of escape from the domination of pre-Civil War-era slave owners. Its maintenance is covered by a few well-intentioned white folks, who are careful to keep the secret hidden from the ears of slave hunters and their employers. The latter think about the railroad as nothing more than a myth. The entire burden of Cora’s suffering and her epic journey is closely connected with this network, but especially to everything that is waiting for her at every stop along the way.

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Her journey, or better yet, her escape starts from the Deep South of the United States, in Georgia. She breaks out from the cotton fields, leaving some victim-followers on her trail, this slowly revealing what is probably the most shameful stain in the entire history of America. She arrives in South Carolina together with Caesar (Aaron Pierre) – seemingly a paradise, but where the apparent racial harmony is covering up some very dark secrets. Meanwhile, the famous slave hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) had already set out to find them, aided by a child servant of color, Homer (Chase Dillon) – a sort of pre-pubescent counterpart to the elderly character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). Cora arrives all by herself in North Carolina, hiding away in the attic of some people who are also hosting a young girl of color, herself a fugitive. All of their lives are in danger, while the community’s intolerance towards slaves and their defenders ends on a brutal note. The series makes three more stops along the narrative’s chronology, lingering on Ridgeway’s teenage years (his failure at being considered a good son by his father, played by Peter Mullan, encompasses the sum of choices which he ends up making throughout his life), on the mysterious escape – and disappearance – of Cora’s mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), and on the story of the little girl from the attic. In the meantime, Cora’s unfortunate travels continue. She arrives in Indiana, in an idyllic spot – one where people of color are cultivating vineyards, living freely, and following their own set of rules. She finally seems to find her peace, and even fall in love again, but the chaos returns.

It’s absolutely harrowing to witness her entire escape. She has not one moment of peace, what with Ridgeway and the little sinister know-it-all always being on her tracks. She is always suspicious, always keeping her eyes open. She trusts no one, and it’s heartbreaking to gaze upon her struggle to survive, her ceaseless running. Barry Jenkins does an extraordinary job with her character, considering what I mentioned earlier about the capacity of bringing different nuances to a character that is constantly being observed. Of course, his work is aided by Thuso Mbedu’s magnificent performance. Her body language is constantly shifting. Oftentimes, she lies in a humble posture, her shoulders sagging and her eyes pointed at the floor. She is afraid and submissive. In other instances, in other circumstances (when she is not clad in tatters), she stands up straight, smiling and laughing, flirting, talking with the self-assuredness of a person who is in control of themselves – only for her state of alert to return at times, reminding her that she is, in fact, not allowed to leave her guard down. Jenkins is always there to underline that; his attention is always geared towards such changes, framed according to the same distance from which the camera shoots certain scenes. On the other hand, but particularly in the same vein of characterization, Ridgeway is a character that, at the very least, is just as complex. He initially seems flimsy, unidimensional, with only one goal in mind: to return Cora to her rightful owner. But, precisely at the moment in which his aim couldn’t be more precise, the series offers him a monologue in a saloon, where Jenkins stops on the reasons for which a man like Ridgeway ends up doing what he is doing. What is it that is pushing him towards such a detestable existence, why is he shunned by his family and by all people of color, be they born free or slaves on the run? Jenkins gives him the space for a rebuttal, and in a shattering manner, tipping the scales in his favor for a moment (and the experienced actor Joel Edgerton is masterful in this scene). The series can almost trick us, at least for three episodes, into being more caring about the slave hunter’s traumas and ultimate fate, than of Cora’s race to survive. This is how deep Jenkins goes – transforming, at times, threats into empathy. His courage is extreme, almost confusingly so, but it supports the existence of a series of characters who exist not just through a continuous change towards themselves, but also in their ways of relating to each other. Also, the different lenses which regard them bring a larger perspective on some of the factors which determine their special contexts.

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One could be fearful of the fact that Jenkins’ series might seem to have been already done in the past. Recently, there have also been other series that discuss the terrible things that black Americans endured across history – the just-as-fresh series Them comes to mind, which could have been a product of Jordan Peele’s mind, but it’s not like that would have been of any help. Or the quite useless Lovecraft Country. Along with them, so many others seem to have failed, only for The Underground Railroad to end up victorious. It’s overwhelming because Jenkins truly cares. He’s doing much more than simply telling a story, much more than anything Steve McQueen could ever dream of. And it’s now available on Amazon Prime.         


Director/ Screenwriter





Sebastian M. Ceolca Sebastian M. Ceolca
Film critic since 2008, film lover since he was 4 years old. Former editor for the ART7 cultural platform and former film programmer for the "Horror Saturday" section of the Romanian Cinematheque. He writes film and festival reviews wherever he can and wherever he is invited to do so. He loves cats, like most humans do, he's an amateur ornithologist and he'd much rather see a good 80s horror film than an awarded hollywoodian drama.