Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” (2021)

“Our color shall not be undone”.

These words, delivered by a Black winemaker and property owner named Valentine during the climactic moments of 2021’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, hang heavy over the entirety of the Emmy Award-nominated streaming series. The same sentiment could be applied to the larger filmography of its producer/writer/director, Barry Jenkins— his artistic voice being inextricably tied to contemporary Black identity. From the hipster-chic gentrification politics of his 2008 debut, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, to the thorny complexity of Black queerdom in 2016’s MOONLIGHT, and on through to the injustices wrought on Black families by the American carceral system in 2018’s IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, Jenkins’ films investigate the world from the perspective of a people whose interactions with said world are primarily dictated by the color of their skin. These works probe the meaning of being Black in America, an inherently complex question shaded by centuries of persecution and injustice. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD gets to the heart of the matter with its unflinching investigation into America’s original sin of slavery. Where this Amazon Prime Video series differs from similar harrowing stories like Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE or the celebrated miniseries ROOTS is the uniquely uncomfortable idea that there is no true freedom for these characters; no matter how many miles they put between themselves and their captors, there is no escape from the color of their skin— and thus, no escape from a world that cannot or will not acknowledge the fullness of their humanity.

Adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book of the same name, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD deepens its harrowing meditation on the horrors of slavery with ahistorical (and even non historical) flourishes that conjure a “magical realist” atmosphere. The idea that, in this expressionistic vision of the past, there actually was a train concealed deep underground that ferried runaway slaves to freedom, gives Jenkins and company ample license to diverge from the historical record and introduce ideas that collapse the distance between that era and our own. Divided into ten episodes, the story chronicles the flight of Cora, a runaway slave from Georgia who endures no shortage of horrors and calamities in her pursuit of a nebulous and elusive freedom. Thuso Mbedu delivers a haunting and memorable performance, giving the character of Cora a delicate, yet resolute, physicality that bends but never breaks. After witnessing the brutal killing of a fellow slave — burned to death while a group of White onlookers enjoy their afternoon tea — Cora decides she must make her escape, subsequently killing one of her pursuers in self-defense as she takes flight with Aaron Pierre’s Caesar, a close companion with piercing blue eyes that convey a formidable intelligence. Indeed, Cora may have blood on her hands, but Caesar poses a particularly-pointed existential threat thanks to his ability to read and write.

Together, they are a high-profile target that earns the relentless pursuit of a slave hunter named Ridgway, who tracks Cora and Caesar across the ensuing ten episodes and several states. Joel Edgerton is arguably the highest-profile member of the cast, harnessing his flinty charisma and focusing it like a laser towards the task at hand. Like an antebellum Darth Vader, he stalks the land dressed all in black— a menacing wraith whose single-minded pursuit is almost monastic. That said, Jenkins affords the character a humanizing grace rarely accorded to his prey. Ridgeway does monstrous things but he’s not a monster; he’s a mere man. A product of his time and his upbringing, he possesses enough moral self-awareness to be disgusted with his life choices but has become too poisoned by them to actually change. Accompanying him on the hunt is a diminutive Black boy named Homer, played by Chase Dillon as a pint-sized assistant whose muteness belies the inherent conflict he feels towards helping Ridgeway track his own kind.

Though it takes its narrative cues from the long-established television serial structure, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD eagerly experiments with the untapped possibilities afforded by streaming platforms. No longer constrained by hour-long programming blocks, Jenkins and company take as much — or as little — time as they need with each episode. Indeed, some episodes, like Chapter 7, barely scrape a twenty-minute runtime. Episodes are divided and named according to their respective locations, allowing Jenkins and company to effectively “wall-off” each chapter’s events into something of a self-contained film all its own. Indeed, entire episodes branch off from the main narrative to provide added insight or information about characters beyond Cora. “Chapter 4: The Great Spirit”, for instance, serves as a kind of origin story for Ridgeway, focused on the power struggle between the slave hunter as an impetuous and frustrated young man (Fred Hechinger) and a cold, dispassionate father (Peter Mullan) who holds him at arm’s length. “Chapter 7: Fanny Briggs” revisits the supposed death of a young hideaway (Mychal-Bella Bowman), presumably trapped inside a burning house back in Chapter 3, only to reveal her escape through a back door and subsequent passage to safety via the railroad. “Chapter 10: Mabel”, while delivering evocative closure for Cora, spends half its runtime on a flashback revealing the truth behind her mother’s mysterious and sudden flight from the plantation some decades earlier. Sheila Atim delivers a formidable performance as the titular Mabel, showcasing the origins of Cora’s natural fortitude while demonstrating how the horrors of slavery can easily break even the hardiest of victims. 

The grim, yet important, subject matter demands nothing less than tremendous performances from Jenkins’ cast. His aptitude for finding and cultivating unknown talent is on full display throughout the series, placing the revelatory performances of Mbedu, Pierre and company front and center, on a pedestal fortified by the structural integrity of better-known faces like Edgerton, William Jackson Harper, Damon Herriman and Lily Rabe (among others). Harper plays Royal, a charming, if somewhat-foppish free man who styles himself a gunslinger as he ferries Cora along the railroad and into an idyllic agrarian community owned by a free Black winemaker named John Valentine (a compelling Peter De Jersey). Herriman, who has notably played Charles Manson for both David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino, invokes his compassionate and humanitarian side as Martin, a member of a White village in North Carolina who hides Cora away in his attic at great personal risk to himself and his wife, Ethel. As Ethel, Lily Rabe delivers a particularly searing performance; a grimly pious woman who wields her religion like body armor, she’s initially angry about the discovery of Cora’s presence in her attic, but she finds the inherent humanity of her stowaway to be undeniable. In putting her faith to good use, however, she pays a terrible price.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD continues and expands upon Jenkins’ swooning, impressionistic visual style, making full use of his expanded resources to deliver his most ambitious and monumental work yet. As an entry in the nascent subgenre dubbed “magical realism”, the series combines the rough textures of reality with an evocative lyricism that leans ever-so-slightly towards the fantastical. The heightened atmosphere that results serves a storytelling purpose greater than mere aestheticism, imbuing the veneer of allegory atop the various events so as to make a point about the ongoing struggles faced by the Black community in contemporary America. In essence, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is not so much the record of a distant past than it is a veiled parable of our immediate present, whereby the continued injustices of dehumanization inflict profound scarring and complicate any hopes for a better future.

To accomplish this effect, Jenkins turns to his regular cinematographer James Laxton, who has been instrumental in developing the director’s poetic visual sensibilities over the years. The pair build off IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK’s use of large format filmmaking, deploying the Arri Alexa LF to capture the 1.78:1 image at 4.5k resolution (although flashback episodes divert to CinemaScope 2.35:1 to further differentiate themselves from the main storyline). A set of Panavision Primo 70 and T-Series lenses establish a consistently shallow depth-of-field that captures the wan warmth of magic hour light in pleasing golden flares. Other elements — deep contrast, the omniscient perspective afforded by sweeping camera movements, large titles that fill the screen, and a hyper-atmospheric sound mix — establish an aesthetic unity between the various episodes, even as each chapter is given its own distinct look. “Chapter 1: Georgia” establishes the golden veneer that highlights an unexpected beauty in the face of savagery, while “Chapter 2: South Carolina” casts a diffuse, greenish daylight over a town where Cora and Caesar have taken refuge under an assumed cover as free people. Chapters 3 and 4, dubbed “North Carolina” & “Great Spirit” respectively, imbue an austere, frontier-life quality to their backdrops. 

The back half of the series leans even heavier into individual stylization; “Chapter 5: Tennessee-Exodus” could also have been titled “Revelations”, transforming a stretch of rural terrain into a scorched earth, apocalyptic wasteland complete with pockets of fire and an ever present curtain of ash. “Chapter 6: Tennessee- Proverbs” teases an alternate-universe version of Jenkins as a genre storyteller, conjuring serious haunted-house vibes in its use of dim tavern light and pale moonlight bouncing off the walls of Ridgeway Senior’s creaky old plantation. “Chapter 7: Fanny Briggs” embraces the series’ magical realism affectations to the most overt degree, employing wide angle lenses that subtly distort our field of view while projecting the aforementioned magical qualities onto specific images like dust particles swirling around a lantern, as well as broader ones like a well-appointed network of underground train stations— complete with elegant electrical fixtures, romantic uniforms for personnel, and even a relaxing bar for weary travelers to slake their thirst. “Chapter 8: Indiana Autumn” picks up with Cora seemingly safe within Valentine’s free agrarian community run by, rendered with a soft autumnal light that evokes the austere romanticism of films like M. Night Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE (2004), only to pivot to a starker, muted palette with “Chapter 9: Indiana Winter”— a visual omen of the horror yet to come. Finally, “Chapter 10: Mabel” sees a return to the amber cast that distinguished Chapter 1, opening up from a CinemaScope frame to 1.78:1 as Cora reaches the end of the line and, at last, freedom. Similarly, the shallow depth of field that had heretofore dominated the aesthetic barrels out to an unchecked horizon, exposing this unknown promised land with a hyper-sharpness that suggests new and different hardships still await.

As evidenced by Laxton’s participation, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD thrives off Jenkins’ continued collaboration with longtime collaborators.The sheer scale of the production makes clear that the contributions of regular producer Adele Romanski are instrumental, as well as Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and other Plan B partners who previously provided their crucial support to MOONLIGHT. Returning Production Designer Mark Friedberg imbues each location with a harrowing authenticity, layering carefully-considered narrative artifice atop an atmosphere already soaked in the inextricable history of their chosen base camp in Savannah, Georgia. Returning editor Joi McMillon, in collaboration with Alex O’Flinn, easily taps into this atmosphere to create the series’ expressionistic quality, further aided by Nicholas Britell’s forceful, sweeping score. Defined primarily by thunderous strings, the lush, orchestral sound of THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD seems to reverberate through an immense interior space, reflecting the characters’ tormented psyches. This technique draws a direct throughline to Jenkins’ previous feature work with Britell— a further refinement of the “chopped and screwed” approach borrowed from hip-hop that aims to convey the mysteries of inner space. 

Speaking of hip-hop, Jenkins also incorporates an eclectic selection of contemporary and classic needledrops, thrown over the end titles of each episode to further tie these seemingly-distant events to our tumultuous present. Each track is deployed to provide indirect commentary on their respective episode’s events, from OutKast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” closing out Cora and Pierre’s initial escape in bombastic fashion, to Pharcyde’s “Can’t Keep Running Away” and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”. This sprawling collection of tunes, which extends to include even the Jackson 5 and other vintage R&B tunes under its umbrella, is particularly inspired; taken together within the context of the story at hand, Jenkins provides a kind of historical survey of the popular musical traditions that emerged from these very conditions and experiences. Claude Debussy’s classical composition, “Claire de Lune”, has been used quite extensively in film and television, but its unexpected appearance here — during a montage depicting the Valentine Farm community at its height — underscores a beautiful, fragile moment in time encased in amber… and that can be irreparably shattered with one forceful strike.

To watch THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, and to witness the myriad trials faced by Cora and those like her, is to continually grapple with the realization of how something as terrible as slavery could ever have come to pass. One hundred and fifty years removed from the end of the Civil War, it’s tempting, perhaps even comforting, to believe we’ve grown as a society— that we’re simply too enlightened now to think such horrors could ever occur again. This delusion, however, is a luxury afforded only to the privileged. Jenkins’ “past is present” approach offers a firm rebuke of such naïvete, drawing parallels to the accelerating creep of xenophobia, nationalism, and outright fascism that defines our current political climate. They are grim reminders of our toxic ability to dehumanize others, which enables such atrocities with a sickening effortlessness. As an artist and a storyteller, Jenkins is uniquely suited to this material— and not just because his previous work predicates itself on the experience of being Black in America. His emphasis on regionalism — evocative explorations of the people and culture of a specific place and time — gives this not-so-distant past a visceral immediacy, capturing a fullness to the resilient humanity (and unflinching inhumanity) driving the machinations of plot.

Indeed, it’s telling of Jenkins’ artistic priorities that clear-cut antagonists like Ridgeway aren’t completely vilified. The palpable compassion that courses through his art prevents him judging Ridgeway even as he clearly condemns his actions. Jenkins graces the character with conflicted nuance and just enough backstory to show his psychology springs from the same wellspring of humanity that shapes Cora. Narratively, this approach keeps us on our toes— the suspense is never about whether he’ll catch up to Cora or not, it’s about if he’ll ultimately choose to help her if he does. Indeed, compassion isn’t just a pet theme that Jenkins imposes on Whitehead’s source material, but a vital structural element; for all their agency as runaways, they are ultimately at the mercy of strangers. Their humanity must be seen and acknowledged by those who stand to help them, because freedom doesn’t lie in some faraway “promised land” reachable only by a magical train network— it lies in their recognition as equals in the here and now. This being a work of fiction (albeit one inspired by a horrific truth), the burden of recognition falls squarely on us. From MOONLIGHT onward, Jenkins has regularly deployed a kind of signature shot that compels his characters to break the fourth wall and gaze intently into the camera, transforming our act of viewing into a narrative complicity. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD populates its running time with shots like these — shots that sear themselves into the brain by dint of their direct eye contact — transforming a director’s stylistic flourish into a vital tool of engagement. We are compelled, repeatedly, to bear witness to what’s happened here. 

Another line from John Valentine’s rousing speech near the climax of Episode 9 lingers in the mind: “None was given. All is earned”. Delivered during an emotional crescendo (and prelude to a massacre), the line is not unlike an inverted echo of the phrase: “when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD demonstrates the impossible divide between those who’ve had to fight (even shed blood) for every right gained and those who merely needed the good fortune of being born free. Valentine’s great sin in the eyes of society was building a beautiful, self-contained and self-sustaining community where free Blacks could live in peace and enjoy the same quality of life as their White counterparts. The winemaker knows how tenuous the existence of his community is— he’s compelled to bribe the local judge with bottles of wine to keep slave hunters from poking around his property. Perhaps the atmosphere of Valentine’s farm is so idyllic because they know they’re living on borrowed time; the White hegemony — indeed, its entire economic system — depends on Black subjugation, and the independence of Valentine’s farm represents, in their eyes, an existential threat that can’t be allowed to stand. The power of Jenkins’ vision lies in his demonstrating how little has changed in the ensuing years; those born without inherent privilege still make their gains with blood, sweat, and tears. A minimum wage that doesn’t line up with the cost of living, community activists safeguarding property values by advocating against affordable housing, the underfunding of crucial social security programs: these are all symptoms of the same disease that, left untreated, can foster dehumanization and facilitate atrocity.

Released to Amazon Prime in May of 2021, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD showcases staggering growth on the part of a filmmaker already operating at the peak of his powers. Where some indie-minded directors might choke under the sheer breadth of resources available to him, Jenkins makes breathtaking use of the tools at hand to realize the epic scope of his story while never losing sight of character. Critics were quick to appreciate Jenkins’ work, applauding it as one of the finest shows of the year. Their praise would translate to no less than seven nominations at the Emmys, but said nominations would ultimately prove to be the end of the line for producers’ awards hopes. Despite its undeniable power as the rare work of art amidst a sea of lavishly-budgeted “content”, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD’s also-ran status in the awards conversation shows that there is still work to be done. It will age beautifully, yes, as wider audiences are given the time to discover it, but our collective desire to award broader, “safer” works demonstrates a profound aversion to the ghosts of our history. We choose haunting over healing, but as Jenkins so evocatively reminds us, it is compassion — and all the hard work that entails — that will salve these wounds.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is currently available as a 4K Ultra High Definition stream via Amazon Prime Video.

Credits:

Written by: Jihan Crowther, Barry Jenkins, Jacqueline Hoyt, Nathan Parker, Allison Davis, Adrienne Rush 

Produced by: Adele Romanski, Brad Pitt, Colson Whitehead, Jeremy Kleiner, Sara Murphy, Jenkins, Dede Gardner 

Director of Photography: James Laxton

Production Designer: Mark Friedberg

Edited by: Joi McMilon, Alex O’Flinn

Music by: Nicholas Britell

References:

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