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The waking dream of 'The Underground Railroad'

Barry Jenkins' limited series, based on Colson Whitehead's novel, is a mythic and sometimes surreal take on the slavery narrative

'The Underground Railroad' is based on Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
'The Underground Railroad' is based on Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

The Underground Railroad was the name given to the complex clandestine network of abolitionists, Quakers, activists and former slaves who helped spirit African-Americans to safety in the 1800s. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead imagined it as an actual railway line on which Cora, a runaway from the deep south, travels, pursued by the terrifying slave catcher Ridgeway. “If you want to see what this nation’s about, you got to ride the rails,” one of the 'conductors' tells her. “Just look outside as you speed through and you’ll see the true face of America.”

The true face of America—cruel, enterprising, grotesque, optimistic—is vividly rendered in Whitehead’s novel, and now in Barry Jenkins’ miniseries (on Amazon Prime). This adaptation tells the story of Cora in 10 'chapters', from her flight from a Georgia plantation to a very different sort of farm in Indiana. The magnificent opening sequence, with past and future mixed up in a hallucinatory montage, is a clue to the mythic qualities which Jenkins will imbue the story with, and a reminder of the particular kind of magic he can work with cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell, his collaborators on Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk.

The series is largely faithful to the novel, yet also makes a few intriguing deviations. In the first episode ('Georgia'), Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) asks to meet Cora (Thuso Mbedu) on the plantation, as her mother, Mabel, had once escaped him and he’s curious to see her daughter. This meeting isn’t in the book but it makes dramatic sense, yoking the two principals together before the chase has even begun. After a horrific killing executed as lunch theatre for white spectators, Cora decides to run off with fellow-slave Caesar (Aaron Pierre). The episode ends with them boarding the train to South Carolina.

This first episode is close to the standard Hollywood slavery narrative—producers Plan B were also responsible for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, the epitome of this sort of approach. But as the series progresses, it starts alternating between stark realism and something more dreamlike. The South Carolina episode has the eerie quality of a Twilight Zone episode, Caesar and Cora stumbling on to a conspiracy behind a humanitarian programme run by white doctors and administrators for the black population. And Jenkins breaks from Cora’s story for an episode to show us Ridgeway’s tortured path from apprentice blacksmith to slave-catcher, with Fred Hechinger playing the teenage Ridgeway and Peter Mullan, commanding as ever, as his father. (The one instance where this reordering of chronology falls through is the final episode.)

It’s when Ridgeway catches up with Cora that the show really stretches out. Episode 5 has the two of them, and Ridgeway’s partner, a young black boy named Homer (Chase W. Dillon), travelling through the apocalyptic, burning wasteland that is Tennessee in the midst of a yellow fever pandemic. There is less sense of a plot moving forward, more of characters being given time to despair and lose their minds. Britell’s work is especially strong here, from the blasted sirens at the beginning to mournful horns. An episode later, there’s the biggest deviation from the novel—a short episode dedicated to a new character, a young black girl named Fanny Briggs (the name pops up in Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist).

When Whitehead asked Jenkins if he had any slavery movies as models for the series he would make, the director told him he was thinking more along the lines of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Both the series and the Paul Thomas Anderson films are cracked-lens views of the making and unmaking of America. In The Underground Railroad, when Caesar asks a station agent about who built the railroad, the man replies, “Who builds anything in this country?” But Ridgeway has his own vision of the country’s origins, in which the settlers are the builders. “The only spirit worth its salt is the American spirit,” he tells Cora drunkenly. “The one that called us up from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilise. And lift up the lesser races…well, if not lift up, subjugate. If not subjugate, exterminate, eliminate.”

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In a piece on Whitehead’s novel in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz wrote that the institution of the Underground Railroad is “one of the few slavery narratives that feature black Americans as heroes—which is to say, one of the few that emphasize the courage, intelligence, and humanity of enslaved African-Americans rather than their subjugation and misery”. This is even more pronounced in the series, where Jenkins reduces the number of white characters. Except for Ridgeway’s father (a good man but not heroic), the slave hunter is the only white character of force and prominence—aided by Edgerton’s tortured, scary performance. But there are instances of black heroism everywhere: Caesar and Royal (William Jackson Harper), the two men who love and help Cora; John (Peter De Jersey) and Gloria (Amber Gray), owners of Valentine farm, the black Eden where Cora ends up; Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji), the pragmatic orator who debates John in a scene that’s like a church revival; Mabel (Sheila Atim), whose determination and sense of justice Cora inherits; Cora herself, stumbling from one hell to another, yet enduring.

The flammable sheen of Laxton’s camerawork helps set apart The Underground Railroad from other filmic visions of slavery, which tend towards the stark and grim. Each state looks different—the urban polish of South Carolina, the burnt earth of Tennessee. Lens flare is deployed frequently, sending rainbows and prisms across the screen. This visual heightening is in step with the air of surrealism Jenkins maintains. In one extended dream, Cora finds herself at a station. She wants to buy a ticket and move on but she hasn’t yet given her ‘testimony’. “The train is leaving, and you have not found your words,” the ticket-seller tells her. Slavery is the nightmare from which America is yet to awaken, Jenkins seems to be saying. All that anyone can do is keep striving to find the words.

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