With the world turning it’s focus to the highly anticipated Amazon Prime series, The Underground Railroad, we take a look at why the Award-winning novel has received such critical acclaim.
The series, The Underground Railroad is Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel by the same name.
The book was published in 2016 and went on to win a Pulitzer prize.
The novel takes readers on an epic journey as it gives a fictional account of historical reality. The book touches on heart-breaking truths about slavery and racism in America.
In the book, 15-year-old slave, Cora (played by our very own Thuso Mbedu) escapes from a plantation in Georgia. She boards a train as she seeks true freedom while being hunted by a notorious slave catcher.
Her story is that of reliance, courage and pain. Her mother Mabel is one of the few who has escaped slavery. Cora’s memory of her veers between resentment at being abandoned by her and a reluctant admiration for making good her escape. It is only at the end that readers learn of Mabel’s miserable end.
According to The Guardian, the book was translated into over 40 languages and was an Oprah Book Club pick. It was also reviewed and praised by former US president Barack Obama.
Barry Jenkins, who is the series’ director, is the man behind the Oscar winning movie, Moonlight.
Aside from Thuso Mbedu starring in the show, there are a lot of reasons the series has been praised before it has even aired it’s first episode.
In a review of the book for Lapidus Center, Manisha Sinha, a professor at the University of Connecticut, says Whitehead’s novel is deserving of all the laurels.
“I can only give it my highest compliment as a historian of slavery and abolition. It gets at the black experience of slavery and freedom better than most history books.”
Manisha’s work focuses on United States history, especially the transnational histories of slavery and abolition and the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction Her award winning book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, was published by Yale University Press in 2016.
The Washington Post reviews the show and says the trauma of slavery runs like a current through the series, but pain is not the totality of Cora’s story.
“Even in her darkest moments. The show is singular in the way it depicts the strength and perseverance of Black people, who have endured generations of abuse in a country built on paradoxical notions of freedom.”
“Jenkins and his collaborators work from a palette as rich as those the director, who helms all 10 episodes, used in “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk".
“One episode begins with lush images of celebration and joy and Black love (Cora and Royal share a particularly tender scene). Jenkins’s signature shot, in which characters direct a lingering gaze at the camera, is at its most powerful in these scenes. Like its source material, “The Underground Railroad” is punctuated with surreal elements — namely the train that gives Cora hope.”
Speaking to the Smithsonian Magazine, Barry says the characters’ humanity remains whole despite everything they go through.
“In a very nuanced way, even amidst the trauma, the people, the characters still retain their humanity. And because of that, I think their personhood remains intact,” he says.
“The condition of slavery is not a thing that’s fixed or static or that has fidelity to them as persons. These things are being visited upon them.”