A towering achievement, The Underground Railroad is exquisite, masterful television, and a must-see for everyone.
This review of The Underground Railroad is spoiler-free.
The Underground Railroad, adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Oscar-winning Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, is the kind of searing storytelling that reminds you how badly written and generally thoughtless most television is. Almost every frame of the ten episodes Amazon Prime Video will release this Friday, May 14, is a striking portrait; American history’s most gaping, festering wound but reimagined as a slightly fantastical tale of escape and hope. Exquisite beauty is juxtaposed with barbaric horrors. The titular railroad is here not a figurative network of abolitionists spiriting slaves secretly north, but a literal network of trains that wind through one of the truest depictions of the pre-Civil War not-so-United States mainstream television has ever dared to depict.
Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) are two such slaves on the run from a life of bondage on a cotton plantation in Georgia, from their sadistic “master”, Terrance Randall (Benjamin Walker), and from slave-hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his young black sidekick, Homer (Chase W. Dillon). But they’re also running from the baked-in prejudices of a culture that considers them lesser at best and a white man’s property at worst; even somewhere like South Carolina, where Cora and Caesar visit in the second episode and slaves are educated, feels almost self-congratulatory in its treatment of Black people as something resembling human beings. (North Carolina, where not just slaves but Black folks, in general, are banned altogether, is a harsher but perhaps more frank setting for the third episode.)
I keep mentioning “episodes”, which Whitehead’s segmented source material seems designed to accommodate but Amazon’s direct-to-binge distribution model feels damaging to. The Underground Railroad is not suited to that kind of ravenous consumption – it’s too long (most chapters run over an hour), too dense, too heavy to take in so quickly. I had no choice but to cram it all in at once, for the purposes of this review, and for once I wish I didn’t have that responsibility. This is the kind of story that should unfold gradually, that you should sit with for a while before pressing on; a journey for its characters and audience both, to freedom for them and understanding (at the minimum) for us. It is not an easy journey. It is not always a pleasant or comfortable one – on the contrary, it is at times as wincingly brutal as it is strikingly beautiful. The intentional juxtaposition of grandeur with pain, of technical filmmaking expertise with emotion in its rawest form, is what makes it so deeply affecting and memorable, but also perhaps what makes it the kind of show you should watch slowly and with your utmost attention.
Jenkins replicates these juxtapositions in tone, too. Whereas the easiest way to white guilt is to linger over Black pain, The Underground Railroad refuses to ever make its protracted scenes of torture and suffering its focus. All are purposeful; they exist so the moments of hope, tenderness and human connection are starker and more powerful, even though there are fewer of them. The many characters similarly exist on a full spectrum of perspectives and circumstances. All, even minor ones, are given their narrative due, sometimes to the minor detriment of the show’s overall pacing and rhythm. It’s so concerned with digressions that it can sometimes lose sight of the destination, if only for a moment, but as much of a cliché as it might sound, here more than ever the importance of the journey supersedes wherever anyone might be going.
Often, or at least regularly enough to notice, Jenkins has his characters stare directly, unflinchingly at the camera, and thus the audience. The challenge is clear. This is the history and our complicity in it that we must all reckon with. This is what television is capable of – the most powerful example of it we’ve seen all year, and perhaps longer than that. This might very well be a masterpiece.