Spiritual Resistance: Barry Jenkins's "The Underground Railroad"

Barry Jenkins's new series adapts Colson Whitehead's novel and creates a living tableaux that looks towards the future.
Elissa Suh

You’d be forgiven for mistaking the opening of The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins’s new miniseries, for a recap montage, meant to get viewers up to speed. The sequence, which encapsulates images of birth and death and a flurry of characters, has a distinctly serial TV quality to it (“Previously on…”), but the final image it lands on and segues to is something less contrivedly banal: a young Black woman alone in the field staring directly at the camera and at us. 

Connoisseurs of Jenkins’s work will spot this technique as a holdover from his last movie, If Beale Street Could Talk, where characters from James Baldwin’s novel met the viewer’s gaze and spoke forthrightly to the audience. It is flourishes like these that animate Jenkins’s urgent, insistently beautiful adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel about the travails of Cora, a slave woman who escapes and heads North through a literal subterranean train network. In the series, as in the book, the railroad is more a mythic symbol than it is an actual setting; the bulk of the action takes place aboveground at each new juncture on Cora’s journey, choreographed through different moods, colors, and sounds. Lush greens give way to queasier ones; peaking marigolds to lurid yellows; icy cobalt washes over one episode and generous vermillion another. James Laxton’s rainbow cinematography is complemented by an equally illustrious sound design and score by Nicholas Brittell, another close collaborator of Jenkins’s. 

The jolting premiere begins with the cacophony of cicadas on the Georgia plantation where Cora (Thuso Mbedu) was born. A pair of brothers who separately farm their divided inheritance and manage the slaves according to their own methods and viewpoints, a metaphor for America at large. After instinctively shielding a young boy from a lashing with her own body, she is punished for her compassion and whipped alongside him. The Underground Railroad novel is immersive in its social realities, which are presented without sentimentality, and Jenkins follows suit in his filming of violence and brutality—Antebellum this is not. Never does the series berate the viewer with slippery depictions of suffering and humiliation of Black bodies. Take for example, the first episode’s, and perhaps the series’s, most hard to watch scene, where a returned runaway is burned alive for the enjoyment of white observers and as a warning to Black ones. The scene is unwavering but neither impassive nor indulgent, and in one incredible moment the camera switches the victim’s point of view—flames smeared across the blue sky, flickering in and out between blinks—privileging and acknowledging what could’ve been a throwaway character, and indicating at the outset that this show’s handling of the past and its manifold atrocities will be different. 

Quick work is made of Cora’s escape alongside another slave named Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and the immediate consequences and unexpected complications they face, cutting down at length the exposition of plantation life. The Georgia section is by far the book’s longest, but Jenkins compensates by returning to it in the final episode. Customary elisions like this one are necessitated by a screen adaptation (others include characters conceded and recombined), and faithful readers shouldn’t squabble too much at the final product. None one could call the adaptation inconsiderately truncated. The series is largely faithful to the source material, bestowed by honors by Pulitzer and Oprah alike, and Amazon appears to have pulled out all the stops, budget-wise—including a custom-built tunnel (above ground) to showcase the train stops. Structurally, the novel is prime material for episodization; hopscotching through time, each chapter is built around a discrete location, part of Cora’s journey, or another character altogether. The show predominantly follows suit, even going so far as to stamp every episode with chapter headings, and it closes each one with the likes of Outkast or Kendrick Lamar blasting over the end credits. The songs connect the past to the present, and sportively complement the book’s own purposeful anachronisms and fabulist touches. 

In his book, Whitehead splashed historical fiction with magical realism, which cohered on account of his expert, and at times slightly sardonic prose, but the series is not always as successful with this amalgamation of tone. Particularly in the early episodes, Jenkins and his writers stumble through genre elements while trying to maneuver the plot into a short time span. In South Carolina, where Cora and Caesar land, an insidious paranoia belies the town’s liberal leanings, but The Twilight Zone atmosphere is slapdash, even hokey. Had it lingered a while, it could have better set the tone and mined the rich text. One missed opportunity in particular concerns Cora’s work at the town’s museum, where she enacts scenes from Africa and plantation life as part of a living history exhibit, a sort of flesh-and-blood diorama. “Truth was a changing display in a shop window,” Whitehead writes, “manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” In the book, Cora wryly notes the inaccuracies of the staged works, pointing towards the seed of historical untruths, the origins of false mythologies into the American fabric, but the series mostly uses it as a set-piece to propel Cora to the next stop: North Carolina where she hides in an attic, Anne Frank-style. This section more aptly relays a mood, Salem witch hunt-inspired gothic horror, but at the expense of developing Cora’s character. It favors building claustrophobic suspense and allows Lily Rabe (well versed in the ways of witchiness from American Horror Story), to pilfer the bulk of our attention in a supporting role. 

Jenkins dutifully reads between the lines of the novel and fleshes it out the details with his own embellishments. Some of the results are completely new and astounding, like a dream sequence that is alternately harrowing and lyrical. Unlike the tetchy absurdism of prestige TV montages (The Sopranos and Mad Men coming to mind), Cora’s visions are redolent with that quintessential and uncanny admixture of heartache and fear, loss and longing. 

Other tweaks are less obtrusive, but yield tantalizing differences. Ambivalence, from both Black and white characters, has been smoothed over, and introspection amplified neatly into bold actions. Inner struggle is difficult to translate to the screen, but these fixes feel ever so slightly askew. Cora of the book was less nervy, more guarded. She shirked religion, and through her bleak cogitations Whitehead reminded us of America’s original sin: “Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had.”  

On screen, Cora blurts out her discoveries and acts upon her impulses in a highly scripted manner. In addition to engendering greater audience identification, these small adjustments have the effect of modulating character motivations and in some sense the sensibility of the series. Heightened, for example, are Cora’s maternal instincts and a more furious desire for justice—less palpable in the book but consonant with today’s politics. Jenkins has spoken of his inclination to “break things'' in the original material and “find something new in the detritus.” Indeed, these breaking points, so to speak, rather than obliterate the narrative, add a fascinating frisson to the movie when viewed alongside its text. 

None is perhaps more intriguing than the addition of a new character, a Black freeman named Mack, which rounds out the back story of a slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton in the present and Fred Hechinger in the past) and creates an opportunity for some clever visual rhyming. Oft-compared to Ahab and Javier, Ridgeway has made returning Cora a personal mission after having failed to find her mother, also a runaway, and his screen time accrues throughout the series. There is a sense of stretching of his character’s arc to raise dramatic stakes and ensure a veritable nemesis for Cora. An episode devoted to his past, essentially an origin story, allows Jenkins to hone in on parental disappointments, bitterness curdling into misplaced rage, not to mention the ugly past of American exceptionalism. 

Edgerton’s serviceable drip of a performance proves slogging, all the more opportune for other actors and stories to impress upon the viewers in his stead—just to name a few, Peter Mullen as his father, William Jackson Harper as Royal, Sheila Atim as Mabel, and Danny Boyd Jr. as the aforementioned Mack. 

The series works best when Jenkins focuses on human relationships, Black tenderness and resilience—his fortes. These moments, captured by Laxton’s roving camera and supported by Brittel’s score, are searing, and they build to a momentous finale. In the novel, Cora retaliates against being placed on display at the museum by choosing a white guest to stare at every hour, until they look away. “It was a fine lesson, Cora thought, to learn that the slave, the African in your midst, is looking at you, too.” The minor detail didn’t make it to its respective episode, but the general conceit suffuses the entire series. In the premiere and ensuing episodes, Jenkins and Laxton affix the camera onto Cora and her Black compatriots, characters major and minor and even those without a name—a blacksmith, Georgia plantation workers, imagined train station agents. While the film’s many set extras have no spoken lines, they are afforded something more significant, the opportunity to present a visual monologue, lay bare a quietly astounding proclamation of their existence (effectively every hour, too, as Cora does). The gliding camera captures a living tableaux, a roundelay of portraits with everyone of its subjects meeting our gaze, harboring a Mona Lisa secret, a wealth of feeling and personal history. While the series, like the novel, reminds of the legacy of slavery, it's also keen to look towards the future, resounding with hope and spiritual resistance.

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Barry JenkinsColson WhiteheadJames Laxton
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