In the opening credit sequences of The Underground Railroad, the TV series adaptation by Barry Jenkins of the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, a Black woman who has just given birth is seen burying her placenta, a slave runs backwards, another ghost-like slave disappears into a cloud of ash, an old white man looks heartbroken, a child walks among the flames and another one falls into the void while a baby cries in the background. It only takes the director of Moonlight a few minutes to introduce the rosary of pain, mystery and captivating beauty that make up his 10-hour epic about one of his country’s worst specters, distributed over 10 episodes. It is a chilling sequence supported by a childish fantasy: an underground railroad that never existed, a child’s tale that works as a metaphor for the system of tunnels used by abolitionists to help free thousands of slaves.
The series, which premiered on Amazon Prime Video, follows the hardships faced by Cora, a runaway slave searching for her mother and for freedom. Cora is being chased by Arnold Ridgeway, who is himself escaping from his own abolitionist father. Weaving together the desires, the scars and the personal demons of these two fascinating characters, Jenkins crafts a series that is as beautiful and dream-like as it is harsh in its rendering of the trauma of slavery. There is a rich, evocative quality to the images (the white-green-yellow tones of the South, the burnt land of Tennessee…) that takes viewers on a many-layered journey between shadow and light, the North and the South, the past and the present, the dead and the living.
Cora, the young slave who is the main character in Whitehead’s novel and in the TV series, is played wonderfully by actress Thuso Mbedu. Early on in the story, displaying the same hurt yet challenging look that will define her attitude throughout her escape, this rebel martyr curses her own mother for abandoning her. The mother, Mabel, is a symbol of freedom on the plantation, the only slave who ever managed to get away from the slave catcher, played masterfull by Joel Edgerton. This dark character travels around in a cart with Homer, a Black child dressed in a suit and hat who acts as his faithful but unsettling assistant.
The slave hunter’s father is played by Scottish actor Peter Mullan in the fourth episode which, along with the seventh and 10th, represents one of the best moments in the series. Playing a character of prophetic strength, Mullan invokes the Great Spirit “who connects us all,” gravitating throughout the entire story with his powerful presence. Jenkins does such a good job of directing the cast that their interpretations make a lasting impact, no matter how short their roles. Although he indulges in occasional excesses of visual rhetoric, the filmmaker always finds a way to offset it with the acting truth.
The Underground Railroad is a TV series of epic ambition whose narrative wisdom turns a slave’s runaway bid and the chase by a messianic reward hunter into a settling of scores between parents and children. This could also be extended to include the relationship between the director and the founding father of narrative film, D. W. Griffith, and the racism of his 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. It is a return to the origins that forces viewers to take a look back at childhood, a territory where Jenkins moves with great ease: his cast of child actors, from young Mack to Fanny Briggs, the demonic Homer and Cora herself creates a unique reality where tragedy and hope go hand in hand.
A final note about the modern songs that end each episode. They play with a kind of anachronism that is no longer very original, yet they distil good taste and in a way evoke the anti-racist message of Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, the masterful short film by Arthur Jafa, made up of an unsettling mosaic of historical images scored to Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam.