The Underground Railroad, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead and adapted to a limited series by Barry Jenkins, takes us on an emotional but muddled journey. The story follows protagonist Cora Randall, an enslaved person born on the Randall plantation. Cora’s mother runs away from the plantation, abandoning Cora to the fate of slavery and the gossip amongst the plantation inhabitants. Cora is low on the social hierarchy – if her mother left her behind, there must be something wrong with her. The only people who show Cora loyalty are her best friend, Lovey, and the handsome newcomer, Caesar.
Caesar is unlike the others at Randall. He has blue eyes and he can read. If his unusual ability were to be discovered, his life would end, despite his profitability. Caesar is meant to breed with the women there. But Caesar refuses his place in the plantation: “I will not be bred like cattle.” He begs Cora to run away with him on the Underground Railroad. She refuses until an event occurs in episode one that pushes her past her previous resigned endurance. She runs with Caesar and, worse, protects herself by killing a young white man.
Thereafter, the episodes mostly follow Cora as she and her changing companions find themselves on different stops along the Railroad. In this magical realism piece, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad with cars and stations underground, manned by different conductors, both people of color and white allies. The series often alludes to Gulliver’s Travels, starting with Caesar reading it aloud to Cora as she recovers from a harsh beating. Those allusions imply that Cora will move from place to place and see different new “creatures,” learn from different experiences, and find a way to a new home (freedom). However, the first episode also ends with the beginning of a chase: Cora’s status as fugitive killer keeps her firmly in the sights of Arnold Ridgeway. That chase promises a certain pace and tension.
In a few episodes, that expectation is met and works well. Episode two, “South Carolina,” lands Cora and Caesar in an Edenic, progressive city where white gentlemen share the sidewalks with Cora and tip their hats to her. Black people are given medical care, education, etiquette lessons and Saturday night socials. Of course, things are not as they seem and the bright colors don’t make up for the evil intentions that lurk beneath. Cora escapes, only to end up in the hands of a seemingly well-intentioned abolitionist whose courage and intelligence don’t match his compassion for people in need. In episode three, “North Carolina,” Cora enters a place as dark as the previous was bright – a puritanical village that disallows Black people to sully their homes in any way. Instead of keeping slaves, they hire Irish indentured servants. The punishment for any Black person entering the village or a white person helping them in or out is severe.
The flaws in the series start to appear in episode four, “The Great Spirit.” This episode slows the pacing and takes the focus off Cora and the chase, placing it on the antagonist, Arnold Ridgeway, portrayed by Joel Edgerton. Initially, Ridgeway presents as a villain similar to Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, a superior predator who can put himself in the mindset of his prey and thereby outfox them at every opportunity. But Ridgeway’s motivation and dramatic goal shift throughout the series and become unclear. If this episode did anything to clarify Ridgeway’s muddled intentions toward Cora, the point of view shift from Cora to Ridgeway would be worthwhile. However, it further clouds the reasons driving his behavior. Ridgeway’s one goal should be to return Cora to the plantation. He doesn’t follow that arc, nor does he commit to any other decisive action. Sometimes it seems as though he feels a kinship with Cora and at other times, he seems to carry a generational chip on his shoulder because he couldn’t find Cora’s mother, Mabel – all the more reason to prove himself by returning Cora in a timely manner to regain his credibility. I did not find fault in Edgerton’s acting. I felt that the flaws went back to character development and writing choice. The actions didn’t reveal enough of his character to be satisfying.
Once the pacing slowed, I surrendered the expectation of the chase structure and just focused on Cora’s emotional journey, which, of course, is the point. Played by international powerhouse Thuso Mbedu, Cora is by turns resigned, angry, idyllic, suicidal, determined, maternal, and soul-sick. The story became a study of trauma and how much one person, and one race, can sustain before the will to survive either disintegrates or overcomes. Mbedu carries the story on her petite shoulders with different companions along the way: friends, lovers, children, and martyrs. The most haunting figure that Cora meets is Homer, an 8-year-old Black boy who goes with Ridgeway everywhere, hunting Cora and taking Ridgeway’s notes. Homer adores Ridgeway and follows him without question. Despite being freed, Homer cannot sleep at night until he chains himself up to their wagon.
The story, ugly as it is, unfolds with great beauty. Barry Jenkins, director and writer of Moonlight, and the creative team infuse the cinematography with color, light, smoke and ashes as the seasons pass and Cora moves from horror to horror, sometimes disguised by beautiful gowns and paradisical gardens. Other times, the landscape bares the souls of its tenants before Cora meets them and we know by the darkness and fires spreading through the land exactly what she will meet. The villains are as different as each landscape, but their goals are ultimately the same, as spoken by Arnold Ridgeway in the ninth episode, “Indiana: Winter.” Jenkins cuts to still “portraits” of the Black people who suffer, survive, or are slain as Ridgeway speaks: “American Imperative is a splendid thing. A beacon… a shining beacon born of necessity and virtue between the hammer and the anvil. Conquer and build and civilize. And lift up the lesser races… well, if not lift, then subjugate and if not subjugate then exterminate, eliminate. Our destiny, our divine prescription. We all have our place.” Each pair of eyes looks at the camera, blaming? Maybe. Shaming? Absolutely.
The series is not a masterpiece, but it is a well-told story. A story that’s hard to watch, certainly, as Jenkins and his cast, crew, and production team do not pull punches. There is graphic, realistic violence. There is pure, unadulterated hatred. This is slavery. This is American history. It’s hard to remember that the story is fictional because, really, it’s not. It’s a history that lives on in a continuum without resolution.
Created By: Barry Jenkins
Based On: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Directed By: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon, Joel Edgerton, Fred Hechinger, Peter Mullan, Mychal-Bella Bowman, Sheila Atim