The Underground Railroad: Barry Jenkin's Amazon Series Is a Tense, Atmospheric Exploration of Hope Amid Trauma

TV Reviews The Underground Railroad
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<I>The Underground Railroad</i>: Barry Jenkin's Amazon Series Is a Tense, Atmospheric Exploration of Hope Amid Trauma

The Underground Railroad is one of those details from American history that feels like fiction. Though the real Underground Railroad was a network of word-of-mouth abolitionists determined to help slaves escape by opening up their homes instead of an actual secret train, the stories about it always felt larger than life. It was this setting that inspired Colson Whitehead’s bestselling historical fiction novel aptly titled The Underground Railroad, which has been adapted for Amazon Prime.

The 10-episode limited series is a fictional account of two runaway slaves, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and her partner Caesar (Aaron Pierre), as they traverse the American South via a connection of literal hidden railroads. Helmed by Barry Jenkins, the series is lush and atmospheric while never shying away from the atrocities Cora and Caesar are running from, most notably the persistent slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who stalks the duo relentlessly.

Each episode plays like a chapter in their journey, one stop on the railroad at a time, and Jenkins is deliberate in his worldbuilding. Georgia and South Carolina and North Carolina feel like different countries with different rules for how to treat Black folk: slaves in one, members of society in another, and illegal to exist in the open in the last. Jenkins fills every location with its own flavors. The first time we see the railroad, it feels like a huge sigh of relief—a literal bright light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s easy for a slavery drama to feel suffocating or paralyzing, and there are parts of The Underground Railroad that are designed to evoke discomfort and stagnancy. For so much of the series Cora is on the run, perpetually looking over her shoulder. Even when she thinks she has found a safe haven and a new community with Caesar, the walls swiftly begin to close in around them. These moments where she can breathe easily feel too good to be true, because in a slave story we are conditioned to brace ourselves for the next blow. And while the blow eventually does come, there is a hopefulness and a fighting energy around Cora.

Much of that can be attributed to Thuso Mbedu’s inhabitation of Cora. In the first episode of the series, we only hear about Cora through other characters, primarily her white owners. She’s a troublemaker and a nuisance, an angry woman who sulks in the corner of a plantation party because her mom escaped without her years ago. (Can you blame her?) But Mbedu is measured in her performance, showing skepticism and fear in one scene while exuding courage and strength in the next. She and Pierre have a tangible chemistry that roots the entire story and makes us believe in their happy ending, even when it feels out of reach.

In Jenkins’ hands, we also see everything up close. The lines etched in someone’s forehead indicate worry; a faltering smile gives away an insidious lie. His signature style comes through in both the camerawork and the color palette. Varied shades of blues accompany every emotion and the camera fixes on interesting, meaningful objects; Jenkins’ composition allows us to examine every side of the story, every perspective at play.

The Underground Railroad is urgent even in its slower moments. There is a thudding heartbeat at the center, proving that despite the trauma at the core of the story, the series is about perseverance. The horrors of slavery and the long tentacles of white supremacy are on display, but the show is not without nuance. It’s a magnificent display of searching for truths and putting one foot in front of the other in pursuit of justice, not just for yourself but for your family and for your people.

In interviews, Jenkins recalls that he approached Whitehead with a limited series in mind, never a film—even though episodic television isn’t his preferred medium. “A film wouldn’t do it justice, a series is the only way,” he told Vanity Fair. In execution, it’s abundantly clear that Jenkins was right. The series ratchets up the tension while also moving slowly through the minutiae, and in it is a tale ready to be deemed a classic.

All 10 episodes of The Underground Railroad premiere Friday, May 14th on Amazon Prime

Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, and will be featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.

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