‘The Underground Railroad’ review: Moving testament to the power of freedom

A still from ‘The Underground Railroad’  

After the battering handed out by Little Marvin’s horror anthology Them and the virus, I was in no frame of mind to indulge in more vicarious viewing of the amount of punishment a body could take. Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway, however, is a moving testament to the power of freedom.

Also read | Get ‘First Day First Show’, our weekly newsletter from the world of cinema, in your inbox. You can subscribe for free here

In an interview with this writer, Jenkins spoke of how the adapting the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was a matter of curation, of deciding what to keep, what to leave out and what to flesh out. Adapting a slim, 320-page novel into a 10-part series, makes one wonder about the wisdom of padding out a story that is effective in its minimalism.

In the same interview, Jenkins talks of how the show is its own beast, and it most certainly is. The novel and the show are both set in the 19th century and tell of a slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu), who escapes from a plantation in Georgia with a fellow slave, Caesar (Aaron Pierre). The two uses the Underground Railroad, historically a system of safe houses to help runaway slaves.

The novel and series, however, depict the railroad as an actual railway with engines and tracks, engineers and station masters. Cora’s journey from Georgia through the Carolinas, Tennessee and Indiana from the book is beautifully picturised. The additions include Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman) who hides in the crawl space with Cora in North Carolina and a fleshing out of slave catcher Ridgeway’s (Joel Edgerton), and Cora’s mother, Mabel’s (Sheila Atim) back story.

The Underground Railroad
  • Season: 1
  • Episodes: 10
  • Director: Barry Jenkins
  • Starring: Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon, Aaron Pierre, Joel Edgerton, Damon Herriman, William Jackson Harper, Amber Gray, Lily Rabe, Will Poulter, Sheila Atim, Peter de Jersey, Chukwudi Iwuji, IronE Singleton, Mychal-Bella Bowman
  • Storyline: The story of a slave, Cora’s escape from a plantation in Georgia and the attempts of a slave catcher, Ridgeway to capture her

While the cast is all around brilliant, Edgerton is riveting as Ridgeway, creating a slave catcher who is no caricature, rather a flesh-and-blood human being desperately trying to justify his actions. His relationship with his father, his jealousy of Mack (Iron E Singleton), who his father admires, and, which drives him (Ridgeway) to his first act of cruelty are all brought to frightening relief in a bravura performance. His relationship with Homer (Chase W. Dillon) the black boy he bought for five dollars and immediately set free is fascinating.

Thuso as Cora is the beating heart of the story and imbues her with a quiet strength and enterprise. As Jenkins mentioned, The Underground Railroad is also about parents and children. When Mabel runs away, Cora feels an acute sense of abandonment which she carries in her heart from then on. Also Mabel is the slave that got away for Ridgeway, driving him to an Ahab-like pursuit of Cora. Pierre as Caesar, who was promised manumission but did not get it, William Jackson Harper as Royal, an Underground Railroad operative who has a romantic relationship with Cora, Gloria (Amber Gray) and John Valentine (Peter de Jersey) who run the prosperous Valentine farm, which offers Cora shelter for a time are all unforgettable characters thanks to the cast.

Cora’s journey is like a pilgrim’s progress through the USA, and a way of looking at the country’s troubled history. While on the one hand you have Ridgeway holding forth to Homer on the “American imperative,” which calls for subjugation and “If not subjugate, eradicate, exterminate,” you also have Valentine say, “America too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. This nation shouldn’t exist, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty.”

There are people like Sam (Will Poulter) who help Cora on her journey, others like Martin (Damon Herriman) who do not wish to get involved and still others like Ethel (Lily Rabe) whose help brings disastrous consequences. Beautifully shot, though The Underground Railroad does not shy away from the cruelties heaped upon human beings, there is not a gratuitous shot in all that horrific violence.

The pacing is excellent with ruminative episodes alternating with action-packed ones—the ninth and tenth episodes illustrate this so well. After the sound and fury of Valentine’s Farm in Indiana in the ninth episode which is almost a mini movie at 77 minutes, the tenth episode, “Mabel” seems almost dreamlike. With hardly any dialogue, it links back metaphorically and literally to the first episode, to the beginning, which is the end. The snake in the first and last episode brings to mind the circular nature of things in what is easily the best television of the year.

The Underground Railroad is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 12:12:31 AM |

Next Story