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Thursday, January 26th, 2023  

Underground Railroad

Amazon Prime Video, May 14, 2021

May 12, 2021 Photography by Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios Web Exclusive
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The limited series debut from acclaimed Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, The Underground Railroad is a deeply chilling and affecting look at the horrors of slavery through one woman’s journey. Adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the ten-episode series centers around Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave on a Georgia plantation who, along with her partner Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and a friend, manage to escape the horrors of the plantation. After a short while, they stumble upon The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad is not a metaphor, but a physical train system linking states to one another.

From here, we follow Cora as she travels through the United States, in and out of freedom. Her personal journey is paired with her fleeing from a slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), tasked with hunting her down and bringing her back to the Georgia plantation to face consequences for her escape. As consistent and central as this plotline is, Jenkins uses numerous parts of Whitehead’s complex novel to explore Cora’s life, and the many different facets of her identity.

The Underground Railroad is Jenkins’ most broadly spanning work yet. The series is over 10 hours and episodes take place all across the American South and Midwest. Jenkins utilizes this time in the best way possible, exploring Whitehead’s story instead of rushing through it. Entire episodes are most often set in one state, and named after the location in which they are set. By giving each part of the story a defined chapter, each episode of The Underground Railroad feels completely independent of one another. This not only reiterates the series’ central themes but presents new ones as well. Separating the major events of the series also makes it easier for viewers to take breaks between watching episodes, which due to the disturbing nature and heavy themes of the series, is a much better option than bingeing all 10 episodes.

Even though The Underground Railroad is Jenkins at his grandest, the director still brings many of his unique filmmaking skills present in his past works. The series is filled with vivid colors and beautiful imagery of natural landscapes, which are often juxtaposed against the horrors of what’s happening to the characters in the series.

Additionally, Jenkins’ reliance on the human gaze – where characters break the fourth wall to look into the camera – is incredibly effective in the entire series, but particularly in the pilot episode set on the Georgia plantation. This is a dialogue-light episode geared at giving a complete picture of the plantation and introducing Cora’s and Caesar’s characters at the same time. Jenkins uses these fourth wall breaks effectively to communicate so much about the two main characters and the love they have for each other, without words. This early success reaffirms an idea that is continually proven with The Underground Railroad: sometimes, imagery can be just as powerful as words.

While much of The Underground Railroad’s success can be attested to Jenkins’ skilled direction and the brilliant screenwriting, the performances are what truly tie the bow on the series. In particular, Mbedu’s performance as Cora is enigmatic, harrowing and unforgettable. The burden of communicating Cora’s pain, struggle and complex emotions as her journey moves forward is completely in Mbedu’s hands. She delivers, attaining the show’s goal of showing Cora’s identity changing over time, as she fights to live her life free from the demons that haunt her. By delivering a performance that has just as many dimensions as the series itself, Mbedu’s performance is one of the best of the year.

The Underground Railroad is an incredibly tough watch, but it is a deeply poignant and thought-provoking series from one of the most consistent and incredible directors of the 21st century. (www.amazon.com/The-Underground-Railroad/dp/B08XC2DV8N)

Author rating: 7/10

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