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Barry Jenkins' The Underground Railroad is not only amazing television, but it shows the ways slavery still infects America

  • Vox

    Jenkins is the rare acclaimed movie director who knows how to make compelling television. "This series is a specific story about the treatment of one specific group of humans in one specific country. But it’s also a story about humans, and Jenkins gives you space to find yourself in it without sacrificing the focus of this story — even if you might not like what you see," says Emily VanDerWerff of the Amazon adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer-winning novel. She adds: "Too often, when a great filmmaker makes a TV show, they simply stretch out their normal storytelling style to span more hours than they typically would. There’s a reason that Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 10-episode Amazon series Too Old to Die Young barely made a ripple when it was released in the summer of 2019, even though it hailed from a hip young director: The thing was slow as molasses. The cool, hypnotic rhythms of Refn’s work became glacial when expanded to fill so many episodes, most of which were over an hour long. The Underground Railroad avoids this problem almost entirely. A couple of episodes sag, but for the most part, the series crafts a propulsive, episodic narrative whose storytelling draws from TV classics like The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive as Cora travels from place to place along a literal underground railroad — with a train and everything — trying to figure out precisely what’s wrong about every new location she finds herself in. A lot of this structure comes directly from Whitehead’s novel, whose central conceit took Cora from the realities of plantation slavery in the early 1800s through several locations that became metaphorical looks at the Black American experience after the Civil War...Jenkins and his team have not only kept the episodic structure of Whitehead’s novel but made it more pronounced in subtle ways. Each episode of the series could fairly easily stand alone as its own tale, with casual viewers having only the most cursory understanding of the main characters and their situation." VanDerWerff adds that what Jenkins does with The Underground Railroad that makes it so significant is taking any viewer, whether they be white or Black, into the mindset of runaway slave Cora. "I have no idea what white Americans who aren’t me will make of The Underground Railroad, but I do think Jenkins has found some ways around this dilemma," says VanDerWerff. "Notice how often he centers the act of viewing brutalities both grand and mundane: The early scene with the whipping, for instance, lingers on both the white audience and the Black audience for said whipping, observing the callousness with which the white viewers regard the spectacle, just so much window dressing for an afternoon picnic. The strange time dilation of Whitehead’s novel also helps the series avoid a certain distancing effect. With other stories about slavery, white viewers sometimes come away with the incorrect notion that the inhumanity of racism is confined to a handful of specific periods in history: Even if we’ve still got problems today, at least it’s not like that anymore. Once Cora leaves the plantation, the new worlds she moves through often have eerie resonances with the present, in ways that discombobulate viewers who might be tempted to resign these stories to the distant past. But perhaps Jenkins’s boldest gambit is one whose impact I’m only just now understanding as I write these words. I saw myself in Cora, despite our many obvious differences. She is in some ways an archetypal character, one who attempts to shed her past as efficiently as possible, only to realize getting rid of the past is never that easy. I want to shed my past, too, and have found it stickier than I hoped it would be. Healing wounds is sometimes a lifelong process, and Cora is a character onto whom anyone in the audience could project their own journeys through their own pain. That projection is good. It’s what art is for, on some level."


    • The Underground Railroad is a strenuous, brutal viewing not to be undertaken casually: "With The Underground Railroad Barry Jenkins transforms Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a robust dialogue understood through multiple senses," says Melanie McFarland. "The script is already potent before Jenkins layers in soundscapes: insects symphonies chittering and chirping in the fields suddenly falling silent, rumbling wheels on tracks in the dark, the cadent clang of a hammer on an anvil. Now layer in the visuals, which is where the Moonlight director exerts absolute mastery. Employing the language of color and tone, light and darkness, he and cinematographer James Laxton can tell a million different stories with sunlight alone. Golden late afternoon rays wrap the beleaguered in relief while that same yellow, captured only a bit earlier in the day, runs hotter to amplify the misery of toiling in cotton fields. The filmmaker does the same with shadow: the dark might hold questions or horrors. Sometimes it registers as blanket or shield. In one chilling scene meant to recall the crucifixion of Spartacus' army on Rome's Appian Way, the night obscures bodies hanging from trees. Being aware of the intense experiential nature of this limited series is crucial because it's a work that seeps in and stays with you. You'll be grateful for its permanence, at least relative to other shows, because it's the most worthwhile 10 episodes of TV given to us in a long while."
    • The Underground Railroad feels necessary because white America has tried so hard to deny, diminish or erase the shame of its racist past: Jenkins, says Eric Deggans, "is a director who makes Black folks look beautiful, even in the midst of crushing hardship and pain. His eye for color and majestic images transforms everything from burned-out swaths of Tennessee forest to the endless fields of cotton plantations into arresting tableaus. But he is also a filmmaker who takes his time in telling stories. Which means viewers must sit in the pain of traumatic moments, waiting for Jenkins to fully reveal the awfulness you know is coming. It's difficult to endure, especially if you already know the hard truths these moments are engineered to convey. Many of the more harrowing scenes in The Underground Railroad communicate familiar ideas. The role white jealousy plays in the drive to oppress Black people. The insidious way white culture convinces Black people to work toward their own oppression and the oppression of others. The many ways Black folks struggle to process and transcend trauma. The ways in which Black joy and peace can feel like the briefest of respites from a seemingly eternal struggle. That's why, in addition to feeling sorrow and disgust in watching those horrors realized onscreen, I also felt anger. Not just over the unfairness of it all, but for the way Black people have been forced, generation after generation, to expose our wounds from systemic racism, just to prove to the wider — often white — world that it exists at all. One reason why projects like The Underground Railroad feel so necessary, is because white America has tried so hard to deny, diminish or erase the shame of its racist past — refusing to acknowledge the connection between centuries of oppression and ongoing, current problems. This version of The Underground Railroad reaches us at a time when we are most prepared for its message, but severely challenged by its delivery system. We are nearly one year past the date of George Floyd's death; 12 months in which video capturing the brutality of this Black man's slow murder beneath the knee of white policeman Derek Chauvin has been played and replayed on screens large and small. Another wound, repeatedly ripped open. And even as footage of Floyd's death builds sympathy for the victims of systemic racism, it leaves many of us unable to stomach more images of Black lives snuffed out by prejudice and fear. But Jenkins' The Underground Railroad demands we endure another look."
    • The Underground Railroad presents the horror of slavery unlike any other movie or TV show: "Some viewers will understandably approach The Underground Railroad with trepidation: Jenkins presents the horrors of slavery in unflinching and relentless detail," says Bethonie Butler. "I’ve seen Roots (both the original and the 2016 remake), 12 Years a Slave, and WGN’s excellent but short-lived thriller Underground, but nothing comes close to the brutal violence depicted in The Underground Railroad. I used the pause button a lot — both to collect and to brace myself...The trauma of slavery runs like a current through the series, but pain is not the totality of Cora’s story — even in her darkest moments. The show is singular in the way it depicts the strength and perseverance of Black people, who have endured generations of abuse in a country built on paradoxical notions of freedom."
    • Jenkins makes a wide range of sadness beautiful, doing the same for strains of trauma and rays of joyful light: "By nature of its subject matter, The Underground Railroad is an often arduous journey — a tough watch, but a rapturous watch, with occasionally questionable narrative choices generally outweighed by a spell that’s at once poetic and grounded," says Daniel Fienberg. He adds: "When the pieces come together, The Underground Railroad is remarkable. The ninth episode — which, among other things, includes the climax of William Jackson Harper’s arc as a freeborn man who takes an interest in Cora; an explosive rhetorical debate between characters played by master dialogue-spinners Chukwudi Iwuji and Peter De Jersey; and the series’ most extended action set-piece — is one of the best things you’ll see on TV this year. It’s the perfect intersection of story and style, a pendulum swing between horror and hopefulness. The Underground Railroad sometimes falters. Jenkins never quite nails the Twilight Zone-esque unease of the South Carolina setting, or figures out how to build claustrophobia in the sections depicting Cora’s unnerving attic confinement. Still, it’s rare that Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton let much time pass without a stretch of eye-popping imagery — and crucially never step over that delicate line into prettifying ugliness. Jenkins doesn’t hide from torture and abuse, but his concentration is more on soulful faces than battered bodies. The whole is enhanced by a rich, if sporadically overwhelming, sound design layering the natural and unnatural — cicadas commingled with the percussion of a train punctuated by the crackle of burning flesh."
    • The Underground Railroad is an American masterpiece: "The Underground Railroad employs aspects from traditional slave narratives, including sadistic torture and villainy, but it builds off these graphic scenes instead of making them the focus," says Ben Travers. "(The second episode feels like it’s calling out past movies and shows that defined Black characters primarily through pain, as white curators at a museum ostensibly founded to honor African American history emphasize cruelty over curiosity.) Later chapters also prove remarkable in their tenderness, as Jenkins’ trademark patience behind the camera builds romance and passion with powerful precision, establishing unique individual identities while fleshing out each subject, no matter how many scenes they get. Nothing in this world is untouched by slavery, and yet human nature at its purest still shines through, unvarnished, in far more characters and moments than anyone could imagine."
    • The Underground Railroad combines the skillsets of creative titans Barry Jenkins and Colson Whitehead with overwhelmingly excellent results: "Every episode of this show is a marvel of theme, character, and story that lives up to Whitehead's literary vision of magical realism and perseverance; simultaneously each installment is a magnificent showcase of performance and visual direction that proves Jenkins' mastery behind the camera is not limited to film and is instead a consistent, repeatable expression of his talent," says Alexis Nedd. "Both the show and Whitehead's book hew to the premise of an alternate reality where the underground railroad, which in our world was a network of safehouses and routes that Black people used to escape slavery, is an actual subterranean train system with stations, cars, and conductors. When Cora and Caesar, two enslaved people on a Georgia plantation, escape and board the train their first ride is only the beginning of a journey through a warped mirror image of the American south and beyond."
    • Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton flip the script on the Gone with the Wind portrayal of enslaved people: "The Southern 'gentlemen' and 'ladies' are clearly seen as twisted people, utterly indifferent to the suffering of others," says Stephen Robinson. "There’s no sweeping Max Steiner score either, as composer Nicholas Britell sets a more suitably sinister mood. These artistic choices ground The Underground Railroad in the perspective of the damned, the people whose misery keeps the mint juleps flowing. The psychopath, Alex, from A Clockwork Orange might hear Beethoven as he viciously attacks defenseless people, but there is no Singin’ In The Rain for the enslaved in America. Thanks to streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, creators don’t have to choose between scraping by with a limited-series budget or cramming an epic story into a single movie’s two- or three-hour run time. Jenkins successfully adapted Baldwin’s brilliant If Beale Street Could Talk, but he stretches himself even further with The Underground Railroad. As the technical 'showrunner,' Jenkins directs all 10 episodes and writes several. It’s quite the undertaking, and Jenkins lets the series build momentum with each installment."
    • Don't binge-watch The Underground Railroad: "The entirety of The Underground Railroad — 10 episodes altogether, most running at least a full hour — will be available upon its May 14 premiere on Amazon Prime, but that is a mistake," says Caroline Framke. "The series is dense enough that each episode would, and should, stand on their own with enough space for viewers to digest it before moving on to the next. Instead, Amazon is releasing all of them in one fell swoop, making it far too easy for someone to muscle through too much without reprieve, or else shy away from the show entirely should it get too challenging. It’s hard not to imagine how Underground Railroad would fare if it were to unfold weekly, giving each installment a more lasting spotlight."
    • The history that Jenkins engages with, in addition to that of the country, is that of representational art: "He excavates the imprint of slavery on older artistic traditions: painting, photography, novels, and, especially, cinema, which since its inception has been entangled with slavery and the dehumanization of the Black form," says Doreen St. Felix. She adds: "Fraudulence is the contemporary Black artist’s fear; authenticity, his constant bugbear. Everyone wants to know the artist’s motive, and everyone wants to catch him being false. Because Jenkins’s source is a fiction, he is relatively free to thread his personal taste through the effort. There are differences, some slight and some significant, between the novel and the series, but to enumerate them would be to validate a false hierarchy of the source text and its adaptation. (I think Jenkins’s treatment is superior, more adult.) The Underground Railroad, which is about not being seen as much as it is about being seen, engages with the chaos of the slavery epic by way of the rhythms of slow cinema. Hallucinations of memories interrupt the action. Ridgeway captures Cora from the secret cradle of an abolitionist in North Carolina and leads her to judgment, along the Trail of Tears. But she cannot submit to subjugation. She runs to the river and attempts suicide, which looks so much like baptism. Ridgeway pulls her out of the water. Jenkins does not leave the scene, capturing, from overhead, the hacking and groaning of these two characters, bonded by all matter of contract."
    • Jenkins has figured out how to funnel more feeling through a camera lens than anyone else: "Jenkins gives The Underground Railroad epic scale," says James Poniewozik. "He and his cinematographer, James Laxton, deliver one stunning composition after another...On top of this cascade of sights is the most arresting TV soundscape since at least Twin Peaks: The Return. The audio makes this world tactile: the rasp of cicadas haunting the woods, the echoes and howling of air in subterranean tunnels, the clanking of keys and scraping of metal that impart just how heavy shackles and manacles are. All this is more than technical wizardry; the aesthetics are inseparable from the story. Cora’s journey is one of contrasts: the breath of freedom, the terror of pursuit, the teasing possibility of safety, the reminders, everywhere, of a system of bloodthirsty cruelty. Jenkins gets it all. It’s as if he has figured out how to funnel more feeling through a camera lens than anyone else. The world he depicts is terrible, in every dictionary sense — both horrifying and awe-striking. Like Whitehead’s novel, the series is fabulistic yet grittily real. This is a beautiful work that pretties nothing up."
    • The Underground Railroad serves as a critique of past slavery portrayals in TV and movies: "There is a horrible and brilliant scene in the first episode of The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins’ breathtaking miniseries adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead," says Judy Berman. "A runaway has been captured and returned to a cotton plantation in antebellum Georgia. Stripped to the waist and covered in bleeding lashes, the man (played by Eli Everett) hangs by his wrists from a tall wooden structure. Behind him stand the dozens of enslaved field workers who are being forced to witness his execution. Opposite them, fancily dressed white men and women feast at a table set out in front of the master’s grand house, waited on by enslaved domestics. A pair of Black musicians strike up a jaunty tune as the man is burned alive. This could be yet another graphic reenactment of Black suffering under slavery, crafted by well-meaning Hollywood types as a reminder—to an implied audience of similarly well-meaning white people with unfeasibly poor memories—of historical racism. Look deeper, though, and the harrowing scene reveals itself an incisive response to pop culture that fetishizes Black people’s pain without acknowledging the psychological impact of such depictions. The same murder that white revelers voluntarily consume as a twisted form of entertainment constitutes a trauma for Black witnesses who have no choice but to look. By sticking close to them, and filming through the victim’s own smoke-fogged eyes, Jenkins makes their perspective paramount. In a work that not only does justice to Whitehead’s masterpiece, but expands it in ways that only television could, he implies that there’s no separating America’s racist origin story from that story’s ongoing exploitation by the American entertainment industry."
    • Here are the biggest differences between Colson Whitehead's book and Jenkins' limited series
    • How composer Nicholas Britell tackled the music of The Underground Railroad: "When I first started talking to Barry about it, he went to shoot, and there was this one day where I got an audio message from Barry," says Britell. "He was in Savannah, and he doesn't normally send me audio text messages. I listened to it, and it just sounded like a construction site drilling or something. So I was like, 'What is this?' About two hours later, I get a text from Barry and he just says, 'Did you get what I sent?' Then I was like, 'OK, I know what he's talking about.' Immediately, I was like, 'He's talking about digging into the earth and going downward and going underground. And what does that mean?' I literally took that file and I started to experiment with it. I bent it and I slowed it down. What was interesting was there was this like rhythm to it that Barry was really into, this sort of drilling. And then there was actually like a tone, like notes almost, you know? That was the starting point of then saying to ourselves, 'Are there these like elemental forces to explore?' There's earth. Is there air? What's in the earth? It's these insects, these cicadas. Is there a sound of cicadas?"
    • William Jackson Harper was drawn to his Underground Railroad character because he felt cathartic: "Yeah, the thing that really attracted me to Royal just, as I started to work on it and the thing that I really started to like about it, was that in a lot of ways, he’s a freeborn man, and so there’s a way in which he’s ahead of his time," he says. "There’s a code that he has, that he lives by, that society at large tells him he’s not allowed to live by and he’s not allowed to have. And so for me, that was the starting point and the thing that I really latched onto, and the thing that was really fun to play. He’s a resistance guy. That felt really cathartic for me to dive into those aspects of his character."
    • South African newcomer Thuso Mbedu on playing the hardened but "very human" Cora: "Enslaved people weren’t allowed to feel," she says. "They grew hard, but they weren’t numb, and they had to figure out a way to not show their emotions as a means of survival. For you to emote or show anything beyond what the master could see could mean lashes or worse. They had to be very strategic in how they conducted themselves at all times.” Jenkins says it was Mbedu’s awareness and strategic mutability that made her the perfect Cora. “Thuso can come across as 16 and 66,” Jenkins says. “That’s what drew me to her and also to playing a character who has to live through these conditions. A lot of times, you have to check your own voice, but you can express yourself so many other ways. I was looking for someone who could really express themselves even when they’re not speaking,” who could just use “the slackness in their face or the tension in their face and convey so many things.”
    • Mbedu says Jenkins "saw something in me that even today I cannot see in myself": "I actually, at the very beginning, doubted if I was strong enough to serve the character the way she needs to be served," says Mbedu. Despite how “heavy” Mbedu found the character to be, the reward of playing her was greater than the risk of living in such dark and traumatic places for the duration of the shoot. “You can give a voice to those who didn’t or don’t have voices,” she says.
    • Barry Jenkins on how The Underground Railroad counters the debate over Black trauma: Jenkins tells TVLine that historically, Black people have been brutally tortured and killed, and acknowledging past atrocities helps put into context the police brutality against Black people that keeps happening now. “In my research, these things happened and much worse,” Jenkins says. “I remember in high school or college seeing images of lynchings, and you often see the aftermath. Because of that, it almost decentralizes the person who this happened to, and so it felt like going from the book to the screen, it was important to be very honest and just present it as these things happened.” He adds: “To me, it was an acknowledgement of the struggle and the things that our ancestors had to endure. You can’t shy away from it, and I try not to make anything based on responses and reactions or out of spite. But, for the four years that I was working on this show, I kept hearing the slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.'”
    • How Jenkins uses camera movements to capture the active inner life of enslaved people
    • Jenkins had a guidance counselor named Kim White on set to help his cast and crew process the heavy scenes: “The sign post for me was to be very forthright about the truth we were telling and also to have a very strong moral and ethical compass – that why Ms. White was on set with us," says Jenkins. "We were watching each other, she was watching us – because of where we’re filming the ancestors were as well. There’s a reason this isn’t a feature film. I didn’t want to force the audience into a captive experience, they can pause, play…you can do whatever. I think what’s really beautiful about putting images into the world is that when someone’s ready to find that image, it will be there. What we all did in creating this show, I think it honored our ancestors, we were respectful, respectful of the text and respectful of the audience.”
    • Jenkins is bracing for what he anticipates will be a heightened emotional response to the troubling material, particularly from Black viewers: “I know that people are going to encounter these images of my ancestors," he says. "This has been the work of the last 4½ years of my life. That responsibility, that weight is still with me. I don’t know how to process that. I used to think that creating the work exorcised those demons or that weight. With this one, it’s not the case. It’s just too much.” Jenkins also says he avoided using CGI for trains and tunnels. “It has to be real," he says. "I want the audience to see what I saw as a child. It’s so important that the actors can walk into a tunnel and they can get down on their knees and touch the rails. Can you imagine what my ancestors would have felt if they walked into one of these tunnels and they saw the track and the light approaching and a Black conductor shouting, ‘All aboard!’ It would have been mind-shattering. I wanted to create that.”
    • Jenkins used an all-Black focus group of Atlanta residents to determine how to portray the violence in the book: The participants were asked should Colson Whitehead's book be adapted for the screen at all. “To my surprise, only 10 percent of the people said that it shouldn’t be done,” says Jenkins. “The other 90 percent were like, ‘Tell it, but you have to show everything. It needs to be hard. It needs to be brutal.' I realized that my job was going to be pairing the violence with its psychological effects — not shying away from the visual depiction of these things but focusing on what it means to the characters. How are they beating it back? How are they making themselves whole?”
    • There was one time that Jenkins was so overwhelmed he had to walk off set: “As filmmakers, we've done this so much that you kind of know how to compartmentalize and prepare yourself,” he says. “However, there were a few scenes… Even though you're on location, there's no blood, there's no fire, the actor is in a harness, he's not actually suspended — yet because of the setting, and the commitment of the actors, it kind of overwhelms you. Even as prepared as I thought I was, there was a moment where I just had to walk off set. I didn’t tell anybody. I just walked off.”
    • Jenkins stresses that The Underground Railroad won't be back for a Season 2 because "this show damn near killed me": "This is definitely a show that's only one season, and I don't mean in subject matter or themes," he says. "But man, this show damn near killed me. Doing this many pages, covering this much ground in 116 days, man it was heavy. But I think this is a singular journey for Cora, and so I recommend binging it, especially because there's something very exhilarating about seeing where this woman starts and seeing where she ends up." 

    TOPICS: The Underground Railroad, Amazon Prime Video, Barry Jenkins, Colson Whitehead, James Laxton, Nicholas Britell, Thuso Mbedu, William Jackson Harper