The images in Amazon’s “The Underground Railroad” are searing, challenging, graphic and, in some cases, tender and poetic. They will remain in my mind’s eye and, I believe, the collective unconscious of all who see them long after the final credits roll. This is a special, even epic, screen production from Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins.
Adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the 10-part limited series, which began streaming Friday, starts on a plantation of savage, white cruelty in Georgia in the antebellum South and follows an escaped slave named Cora (Thuso Mbedu) on a brutal and fantastic hero quest for freedom. Though it is set in the past, it speaks with great force, righteousness and wisdom to the conversation of American life today about systematic racism, reparations and the crimes committed by figures of law enforcement authority against Black people.
I could not watch the graphic torture and death of a recaptured slave on the Georgia plantation in Episode 1 without thinking of the horrific torture and death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. Both were vicious and murderous assaults, demonstrations of institutional power staged in part as warnings to other Black people.
Understand that some of the images are tough to see. I had to step away from the screen several times to deal with the brutal acts of violence, such as a recaptured runaway slave being hung up by his arms, whipped and set on fire just yards away from where the white plantation owner and his guests were having an outdoor dinner. But, I believe they are necessary to communicate some sense of the horrific reality of slavery after some two centuries of whitewashing in media, ranging from textbooks to feature films, by the vast majority of dominant culture. Jenkins contrasts these grimace-worthy scenes with poetic and equally powerful images of resilience, tenderness and kindness among the victims of slavery, particularly Cora.
As the series opens, Cora is a teenager. She has been abandoned by her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), who disappeared from the plantation and is presumed to have escaped. Every horrible thing one can imagine happening to an abandoned slave child on a plantation appears to have happened to Cora, and she is physically and emotionally scarred.
Then a chance of escape. Caesar (Aaron Pierre), a fellow slave who reads from a hidden copy of Jonathan Swift’s adventure saga, “Gulliver’s Travels,” tells her of an Underground Railroad that can deliver them from the hell in which they are trapped. She agrees to follow him through the woods and swamps to a place he says he knows the train will stop.
This is the first of several marvelous moments in the series. Whitehead’s novel took the historical underground railroad, a network of Black and white people who helped runaway slaves escape, and turned it into a literal reality, a locomotive that runs on a series of underground tracks, which are accessed through hidden openings in the earth. Jenkins’ visual adaptation of that brilliant conceit is equally impressive as he uses sound and image to create a pulsing, surging, steam-belching locomotive that arrives like a mighty archangel of deliverance at the underground station where Cora and Caesar wait.
Whitehead is hailed as a master of multiple forms of storytelling capable of smoothly shifting styles and genres. And Jenkins is every bit up to the task in his adaptation of that mastery. He not only deftly introduces this moment of magical realism into the series but also uses it to exponentially energize the narrative and shatter the sense of claustrophobia, imprisonment, suffering and constant fear that suffused slave life on the Georgia plantation. The relentless pounding of the train as it approaches feels like the sound of freedom. Jenkins weaves in sound, from the ghost-like echoes eternally reverberating through the tunnel to the cutting crack of a whip on human flesh, as well as I have heard it ever used in a TV production.
But deliverance from slavery in Georgia is not necessarily salvation. Episode 2 opens in 19th Century South Carolina, still in the realm of magical realism as evidenced by a skyscraper in the city where Cora and Caesar now reside. Life here is pretty, gentle and refined for the couple. They dress in fine clothes and waltz under globes of light at an outdoor pavilion. But, as they come to find out, Black life is no less threatened here than on the plantation as the ever-smiling white sponsors of this society are practicing Nazi-style eugenics aimed at wiping out Black life.
The next stop finds Cora alone in North Carolina. And the white people here are far more open about what they are up to: hunting and killing any Blacks they encounter. The tone is set early in this episode as Jenkins creates the shocking cinematic image of a long road flanked on both sides by stately trees. Hanging on each tree as far as the eye can see is a Black corpse. This is Cora’s introduction to a white, religious community where one man, a station master on the railroad, reluctantly agrees to hide her in the rafters of the home he shares with his wife.
The episode will undoubtedly bring “The Diary of Anne Frank” to mind for some viewers. But Cora is not just in an attic, she is in the rafters above the attic, a stifling, suffocating enclosure that she shares with a younger Black girl also in hiding. Despite both being emotionally battered, there are moments of tenderness and comforting between them that make you want to weep at their fundamental goodness, compassion and humanity compared to the pious white folk below who seem to have made killing Black people into a religion.
Cora’s narrative of escape is made all the more gripping by the ongoing storyline of Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a relentless and ruthless slave catcher on her trail. One of the most jarring moments in the series comes with Episode 4, when Jenkins takes viewers away from Cora’s journey to provide an extended backstory for how Ridgeway became such a monster. I believe the choice pays off and enriches the drama — as jarring as it is. My advice overall for the series: When in doubt about a narrative change in direction, trust Jenkins. You could not be in better hands.
One of the director’s most stunning and surreal creations is the imagery in Episode 5 as Cora travels through Tennessee as Ridgeway’s captive. Tennessee is a hellscape of burning trees and charred forests. It is a perfect objective correlative for the emotional and spiritual devastation Cora feels at being captured again and marched back toward Georgia in chains. In the next riveting scene, Cora is chained in the back of a wagon overnight to another captured slave who had just died from starvation — punishment for having tried to escape.
Jenkins, who also directed and co-wrote “Moonlight,” a coming of age drama that won Oscars for best picture and best adapted screenplay in 2017, shared his thinking on such gruesome images in production notes provided by Amazon.
“There are hard images in this show, images that speak forthrightly to the injustices inflicted upon my ancestors in the great making of this country … and yet they could never truly sum up the hardness of this most horrible condition, the American institution of slavery,” he says.
“And while I have done everything I can to present them forthrightly and without over-sensation, the fact of their existence is a hard thing to bear. It is for that reason that alongside those hard images I have also strove to pay respect to softer ones whose existence is no less emphatic. Whether that be a formerly enslaved woman marveling at her sublime reflection in a mirror … or an enslaved man sitting on a porch mending a toy for the children he did not conceive but whom he will raise as his sons.”
Jenkins says the images “are testament to the deep wells of fortitude that had to have been present in order for the descendants of those people to persevere and retain agency that they may one day use language to create testaments in their ancestors’ image.”
“The Underground Railroad” is one of the screen’s greatest cultural testaments to the courage, humanity, resilience and strength of those ancestors. The nation is profoundly enriched by having the words and images of this series become an enduring part of our shared memory.
All 10 episodes of the series became available for streaming on Amazon Prime Friday.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.