In Barry Jenkins’s 10-part epic of slavery The Underground Railroad, a young slave named Cora (Thuso Mbedu) flees her Georgia plantation via a network of railways carved under the US South. That’s not the only fantastical element in this poignant, transcendent series adapted from Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Teeming with surrealist details and anachronisms, the show “is fabulistic yet grittily real,” James Poniewozik writes at The New York Times, and by drawing on elements of fantasy, Hannah Giorgis notes at The Atlantic, the series “actually deepens the real-life atrocities it depicts.” But what is it about Jenkins’s depiction of such horrors that makes The Underground Railroad stand out from other slavery stories?
“It’s a testament to Jenkins’s unflinching storytelling that the series never comes off as didactic or exploitative,” Clémence Michallon writes at The Independent: “the most painful scenes read instead as a depiction of a country’s history, and a powerful acknowledgment of fact.” As Kambole Campbell echoes at Empire, the show is not “a perpetual museum tour of Black trauma,” and the violence, “though potentially wearying, is never treated as spectacle.” In fact, having established the harsh reality of the slave trade in the first episode, Jenkins “is sparing in his use of violence from then onwards,” Alice Kemp-Habib observes at GQ: “there is not a single shot in which viewers see whip connecting with flesh—the sound, Jenkins said, was enough.” Oftentimes, the camera turns away from the horrific details of a rape or a murder to focus instead on the secondhand trauma perpetrated on the people forced to watch. Drawing from one such early scene, TIME’s Judy Berman raises an eye-opening point when she argues that the series offers “an incisive response to pop culture that fetishizes Black people’s pain without acknowledging the psychological impact of such depictions.”
The same murder that white revelers voluntarily consume as a twisted form of entertainment constitutes a trauma for Black witnesses who have no choice but to look. By sticking close to them, and filming through the victim’s own smoke-fogged eyes, Jenkins makes their perspective paramount. In a work that not only does justice to Whitehead’s masterpiece, but expands it in ways that only television could, he implies that there’s no separating America’s racist origin story from that story’s ongoing exploitation by the American entertainment industry.
This shift in perspective allows Jenkins to depart from other slavery-themed works such as, say, 12 Years a Slave, Lovecraft Country, Them, or Antebellum. For the history The Railroad Underground is engaging in, Doreen St. Félix reminds us in an illuminating take at The New Yorker, is not just that of the country, but of representational art, and cinema’s especially, “which since its inception has been entangled with slavery and the dehumanization of the Black form.”
On the other hand, the decision also problematizes our own position as spectators. All through Railroad, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton allow subjects to look directly at us, in usually unblinking close-ups. As Alan Sepinwall suggests at Rolling Stone, “it is as if Jenkins, and his characters, are challenging you to do the same: to gaze without flinching at scenes depicting the most heinous impulses and deeds of our nation.” But how long can one look? The Underground Railroad was released in one fell swoop by Amazon, yet the series is hardly suited for binging. As Brian Tallerico warns at RogerEbert.com, “this is an experience that shouldn’t be rushed.” It isn’t just that the show is “too visually and emotionally rich” for one consumption, James Poniewozik notes at The New York Times; this is an often excruciating watch, poised to leave viewers, Alice Kemp-Habib remarks at GQ, “feeling utterly depleted by the end of each episode.”
Yet there’s also beauty amid the violence. In the days leading up to the show’s premiere, Jenkins released The Gaze, a 52-minute video filmed during the shooting, featuring harrowing portraits of background actors whose aura, he wrote, reminded him of ancestors obliterated from the historical record. “I wanted to convey a very beautiful relationship between our ancestors and the land,” Jenkins has told The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis, and indeed, Railroad wrings much of its stupefying grace out of the interplay between characters and the nature surrounding them. It’s a compositional achievement which, to borrow again from The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix, heralds Jenkins as “a virtuosic landscape artist;” with Railroad, he “has done for the antebellum South what J. M. W. Turner did for the sea.”
But those fleeting moments of beauty raise their own concerns. You may argue that some of Jenkins’s stylistic choices end up drawing attention to themselves. Take the tendency to frame characters in scorching light, a choice that lets the sun obscure the actors instead of illuminating them: “For all its surprising boldness […] and the stunning geography the camera captures,” Dan Rubins contends at Slant, Jenkins’s storytelling “sometimes acts like that blinding light, pulling focus toward itself instead of the characters.” And while the director “excels at a dreamy state of intimacy,” Darren Franich echoes at Entertainment Weekly, “the allegorical setting can turn distancing,” leaving characters “trapped in abstract themespace.”
There’s no denying the show’s leisurely and digressive pace; as Michael Phillips argues at Chicago Tribune, the series “is not full of cliffhangers and easily hooked-into rises and falls in conventional dramatic action.” But to me, the quieter, lyrical moments that Jenkins disseminates throughout register as evidence of a director working to adapt a new format to suit his vision, as opposed to sacrificing that to the medium’s grammar. Railroad is Jenkins’s first television project, and yet, as Stephen Robinson stresses at The A.V. Club, the director “never abandons the cinematic language he’s mastered.” And the choice pays dividends while adapting Whitehead’s novel. Not only can Jenkins reproduce the book’s most piercing monologues, Judy Berman observes at TIME; he’s also able to insert “long, wordless, lyrical passages” that can communicate characters’ inner lives “more elegantly and completely than the voiceover narration so many literary adaptations lean on.” It’s these moments that align Railroad with Jenkins’s feature films, and perhaps, Blair McClendon suggests at 4Columns, what’s most extraordinary about the series is that it’s “hopefully put to rest what it means to say that a show ‘looks like cinema.’”
Increasingly common, the compliment typically means that it looks expensive. Rarely does it extend to method, pacing, and the primacy of the image as a conveyor of meaning. Jenkins, along with much of the team from his previous work, has genuinely crafted something that moves and sounds like a movie, allowing moments to uncoil separately from their value to the plot, but which are vital to the production of a particular sensation.
And conveying sensations is what Railroad does best. The show is a technical wonder. Aside from Laxton’s gorgeous tableaux, it boasts what RogerEbert.com’s Brian Tallerico calls “one of the best sound designs in the history of television,” a symphony of realistic sounds “offset against a beauty of a score by [Nicholas] Britell that adds emotional texture to the veracity of the production.” In turn, the needle drops at the end of each episode—featuring contemporary songs by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, and others—yank us out of the illusion of the period piece, reminding us, as per Catherine Bray at Film of the Week, that “these events, which are fictional but also factual, are intimately connected to the present, that historical events aren’t nearly as remote as you may feel.”
Not everyone will want to devote 10 hours “to watching America’s worst instincts come to grisly fruition,” Caroline Fremke observes at Variety, but for those willing to follow Cora along the journey, The Underground Railroad “is a story about slaves told unlike many others: one which doesn’t shy away from its truth, but which nevertheless has the compassion to make its suffering more three-dimensional than the shock of a scream.” It’s this commingling of barbarity and humanity that makes the series such a memorable and ultimately fortifying watch. In the words of Robert Daniels at Polygon:
So many others have failed to make slave stories about more than surviving indignity, humiliation, and pain. I feared Jenkins would too. But I felt differently once I finished this mystical, surreal epic. I felt uplifted, unashamed to look this era of history in the eye. […] And by The Underground Railroad’s conclusion, the final sun-soaked shot that filled me with peace, that fashions Black folks’ right to live as a manifest destiny, I was left with one thought — he actually did it. He really did it. Jenkins escaped the cycle of wearying torture stories, locating a tunnel free of the regrettable weight levied by Hollywood’s past mistakes.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.