Amazon is releasing all 10 episodes of “The Underground Railroad” on May 14 on Amazon Prime. This bold new series is from the mind of Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) who developed it from Colson Whitehead’s novel. He also directed all 10 episodes.
Jenkins is a genius and he expertly threads the nail-biting story to help an audience understand the inherent trauma intertwined with tender moments of human intimacy.
Jenkin believes, in his way, that the past isn’t really the past. In his series, the spirit of those wronged, past, present, and future linger, clinging to the fine edges of our shared existence.
People still breathing and those who have crossed over, and those lingering in a state of half-life, all, staring back at us with positively eerie patience. And everywhere there are terrible secrets.
“Underground Railroad” focuses on the runaway slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and her experiences on a most awful journey. This slender woman becomes a living witness to one of America’s ugliest chapters. Her story begins as a cotton picker in Georgia who is abused by her cruel master (Benjamin Walker) whose name she bears. She’s a kind of legend since her mother Mabel (Sheila Atim) successfully ran away, never caught by career slavecatchers like Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton). She was left behind and although her mother is long gone, her presence lives inside her daughter’s angry mind.
From her tangled roots in Georgia, Cora starts her journey with Caesar (Aaron Pierre) running to South Carolina, to a land they believed to be different only to find it was not, at all. In North Carolina, Cora hides in an attic with Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), another runaway, living in terror, because the state has outlawed African American people any grace, preferring them hanging, like strange fruit, from trees as a warning. Tennessee is barren next to Indiana which is rich with opportunities. Each state teaches Cora something new and important. She gains friends as well as enemies but the greatest lesson—I think—is how she begins to truly understand American racism and how strong, and tangled those roots are. Begging the question, will there ever be hope for the African Americans in this country?
“Underground Railroad” is about Cora’s steps toward her freedom, and it’s filled to the brim with tension.
Edgerton the slave catcher’s backstory is important, told in a few extended flashbacks, but there are more characters whose backstories could have provided a different point of view and one rarely seen in a series about slavery and the underground railroad, but I’m nitpicking.
Pierre’s Caesar is powerful, a strong character that lives and breathes his desires so well that even when he becomes more of a memory, we still feel him. Other actors stand out including Ridgeway’s henchman, Homer, an 11-year-old played by actor Chase Dillon. This is a young talent to keep an eye on. His body language is poetry.
“The Underground Railroad” is filled with pain, not unlike the confused look of frustration I see in the faces of my sisters and brothers.
Cora’s and the other slaves’ mundane and horrifying everyday realities are presented without sentiment, in all their brutality, so watch with an eye and consider yourself properly warned.
Now to the look of the series, which is magnificently crafted by cinematographer James Laxton, Jenkins somehow finds the humanity in the most inhumane people and situations and I think it’s a skill that can’t be taught. Meaning, Jenkins is born this way—able to see past the brokenness and viper-like hisses of the evilest of people.
“Underground Railroad” is 10 hours of Cora’s journey and told in such a way that no matter how gruesome, we as the descendants understand just how strong we are. It’s in our DNA.
“The Underground Railroad” premieres on May 14 on Amazon Prime.