The Underground Railroad

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Thuso Mbedu in The Underground Railroad.
Thuso Mbedu in The Underground Railroad.
Photo: Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios


The Underground Railroad


Amazon Prime Video


4/5 Stars


The Underground Railroad tells an 'alternative reality' where people attempting to free slavery in the United States south used an actual railroad. It follows the story of Cora, a runaway slave as she uses the railroad to get to freedom.


Like Cora, The Underground Railroad takes us on a journey. We go between different states, different time periods, different types of racism, and meet different characters along the way. And what that leaves us with is not just a take on slavery but on how the remnants of slavery and racism have been embedded in society and the hearts of many people. It is a story of struggle, pain, and most of all, of survival.

Based on the Colson Whitehead book of the same name, The Underground Railroad reimagines the real-life whisper network of safe houses and hiding places that smuggled slaves out of the US South to the free states or Canada. In this version, it is a literal underground railroad with trains and conductors that takes slaves from one state to another. Cora (Thuso Mbedu) is haunted by the fact that her mother ran away and has had abandonment issues since then. When another slave Caesar (Aaron Pierre), suggests that she runs away with him, she is first reluctant and then decides to go with him. We experience the railroad and the escape routes through Cora's eyes and the eyes of Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a slave-catcher who has a vendetta against Cora as Cora's mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), was the only slave he never caught after she ran away.

It is difficult not to rave about Mbedu's performance. Cora is such a complicated character, born into pain, raised in pain, and hunted and followed wherever she goes. In the rare moments when she is allowed a little peace – when she is dancing with Caesar in South Carolina, or when she is with Royal (William Jackson Harper) in Indiana – her face almost transforms, and she looks like a completely different person. The first episode takes place on the Randall plantation where Cora was born and grew up on, and we learn that even though the slaves were 'safe' on the plantation, they were still constantly terrorised and were forced to 'breed' with each other. Mbedu, who needs no introduction to us, disappears into this role, so much so that I completely forgot that she was not an American actor. She had such a grasp over the character that every action, every word seemed weighted and with so much emotion that she became Cora. It's no wonder there was a therapist on set to work with the cast and the crew.

At face value, one might say that the villain of the story is Ridgeway, the slave catcher who ruthlessly pursues Cora, but the villain is, in fact, the different echelons of racism. The first episode features the most obvious form of racism in Terrence Randall (Benjamin Walker), the plantation owner. He is very open about his disdain for black people and how he doesn't see them as human, and his extremely violent methods of punishment are proof of that. But what The Underground Railroad does excellently is that it depicts that racism does not always look like this – violent acts of aggression, it is sometimes more subtle than that.

In South Carolina, it seems to be a paradise for black people, they are taught to read and write, but it's just a mask for the nefarious activities that they do to black people (this episode reminded me of Get Out). In North Carolina, the religious sect that Cora encounters has outlawed black people and lynches any that they find. And then, when she arrives in the free state of Indiana and lives on a compound with other free black people, the white people in the town act as if they respect them and are willing to do business with them, but they feel threatened by their intelligence and power. The different stops on the railroad teach both Cora and the audience about how racism looks under various guises and that even the more subtle forms can be an act or end up in an act of violence.

Another thing that the show does very well is that it does not focus on a 'white saviour'. A lot of content seems to dwell on the white abolitionists and see them as the hero of the story. The underground railroad did not only consist of white abolitionists; in real life, the network was also made up of black freed slaves and Native Americans. In The Underground Railroad, not a lot of time is spent on the white abolitionists, other than one couple – Martin (Damon Herriman) and Ethel (Lily Rabe) in North Carolina. Martin and Ethel are reluctant helpers to the cause, and I wish the show had spent more time telling their story, not to make them the heroes but for us to understand why they would help runaway slaves when they seem to abhor them so much.

All ten episodes of the series were directed by Barry Jenkins, who directed Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. There is a signature languid pacing in the series which is synonymous with Jenkins' work. He takes his time; there are many silent moments where characters seem to dwell in their emotions. The cinematography is also stunning - the long shots of each of the different states that Cora moves to, the way Cora is shot in the moonlight. However, some scenes were just too dark, and I struggled to see what was happening on screen.

The show also felt too long at times. The first three episodes that focused on a different state in each episode and episode nine, which followed the tail-end of the events of Indiana, were the strongest episodes. This is mainly because they seemed to be working in the constraints of the episode, and it gave a full, rich story within that time. The other episodes seemed to drag at times. It is also an extremely difficult series to binge-watch even though Amazon Prime released all ten episodes at once. There are extremely violent scenes that are difficult to watch, and because the subject matter is so heavy, you would want to sit with it a bit before going into another episode.

The Underground Railroad is not a perfect adaptation, but the story and the themes it brings across will stay with you long after you have switched off the TV.


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