Track Changes

Gene Seymour on Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad (2021)

The Underground Railroad, 2021, still from a TV show on Amazon Prime. Cora (Thuso Mbedu).

CALL ME A KNEE-JERK PESSIMIST, but I can’t help but feel that America’s about as ready to embrace an emotionally and intellectually challenging art movie in ten parts as it is to come to a full reckoning with slavery and its stubborn, protracted legacy—which is to say, I don’t think it’s ready for Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad.

As I’m writing this, Jenkins’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s cunning and stormy antebellum picaresque is only beginning to stream its way through Amazon Prime. In the first couple days, I’ve sensed initial confusion from some in the viewing public who may not have read Whitehead’s award-winning novel and were likely expecting a newer, shinier Roots. Customer reviews on Amazon’s website have (correctly) noted that the “real-life” underground railroad didn’t have steam engines operating beneath the terrain of the mid-nineteenth-century South and thus distrusted the series from the outset. I suspect that as its audience grows over succeeding days and weeks (which is how streaming tends to work its way toward a consensus), Jenkins’s Railroad will receive more introspective reactions from the public, which may be as rhapsodic and enthusiastic as those from professional critics. Even so, I can’t quite shake the memory of one such critic who, upon reviewing Whitehead’s Railroad when it was published in 2016, called it “straightforward” and “mostly realistic.” At least those aforementioned Amazon customers are hep to its fabrications, even if they don’t understand what they’re doing there.

Note the distinctions made here between Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (probably the only American novel that’s won both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Arthur C. Clarke Award) and Jenkins’s adaptation. Both Railroads tell the story of a young slave girl’s passage from the baroque sadism of a Georgia plantation through a series of adventures in a nightmarish pre–Civil War America in pursuit of a freedom that seems by turns as elusive and untrustworthy as the shifting landscapes around her.

The Underground Railroad, 2021, still from a TV show on Amazon Prime. Mabel (Sheila Atim).

Jenkins, five years removed from the triumph of Moonlight, has brought to his Railroad much of the lyricism and intimacy of that 2016 Oscar winner while rendering Whitehead’s alternate antebellum America with both a rigorous attention to period detail and a masterly aptitude for orchestrating menace. (If you need an analogy, think of a Thelonious Monk solo with wide-open spaces between thickly layered chords that sound eccentric but remain grounded in the melody.) Jenkins can also make outrageously rendered anachronisms—see the mythical railroad’s stations, with white tiles on the walls and incandescent lighting—seem as plausible as the cotton fields, swamplands, and other settings, both bruised and bucolic.

So emphatically does Jenkins impose his own vision upon Whitehead’s narrative that it is its own separate-but-equal artifact: a single grand epic comprising ten episodes, each directed, and some cowritten, by Jenkins. Individually, every episode could stand alone as its own masterwork, blending the historically factual and the surreal with such assurance that it may be hard for even the most knowledgeable viewer to know where, or if, the boundaries are between speculation and realism. Strung together, these arresting, unsettling films coalesce into a fever dream of dread, loss, recovery, and fire. Lots of fire; so much fire, along with its smoldering, blistered residue (mostly in a barren, ashen nineteenth-century Tennessee that conforms to our worst imaginings of a future planet), that watching all ten episodes will leave you wondering if, or when, the fever will break even after the dream runs its course.

The Underground Railroad, 2021, still from a TV show on Amazon Prime. Cora (Thuso Mbedu).

As Cora, the wary, besieged Candide at this epic’s center, Thuso Mbedu contains and releases waves of apprehension, resentment, circumspection, anger, and resolve within her small, deceptively vulnerable frame. She is in perpetual solitude, whether awaiting deliverance in the dark on the next available subterranean locomotive, struggling to get her bearings among fellow Black refugees in a dubiously progressive and welcoming South Carolina, or huddled in brooding terror and gloom when shackled to the rear of a wagon commandeered by the annoying, bloviating, and self-aggrandizing slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), to whose backstory Jenkins has added a complexity and depth that make him seem somewhat more human than in Whitehead’s book, while in no way mitigating his wicked bombast.

Almost all film adaptations of literary works depart from their sources. The best of them openly violate those sources. Jenkins doesn’t conspicuously violate Whitehead so much as ramp up the volume on the novel’s calculatedly baleful voice. It is one thing to read, in Whitehead’s deadpan coroner’s-report style, about a runaway slave chained and dangled from two wooden stocks, mutilated, beaten, and whipped within an inch of his life, oiled and roasted alive for both the entertainment of the plantation owner’s dinner guests and the edification of his slaves. It is quite another to watch such a scene enacted on one’s home television screen from as many points-of-view as can be contained, including those of the victim and the field hands brought in from work to bear witness to the fearsome dues of seeking one’s freedom. The sequence makes the inside of your head scream.

The Underground Railroad, 2021, still from a TV show on Amazon Prime.

There are many more atrocities lining this railroad to its bitter end. And I haven’t yet read a review that didn’t insist on how important and necessary it was for viewers to stare long and hard at every single one, especially in an era of race relations we’ve come to define as George Floyd’s. (What’s far more discomfiting is how hard the series stares back at you, and not always figuratively, as in one pan shot of a sea of Black faces belonging to doomed men, women, and children.) Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have had difficulties looking for very long at any depiction of their nation’s original sin, whether in fiction or in factual accounts. It’s still too early to tell whether Jenkins’s Underground Railroad will resound any differently with those who prefer to look away from the history it both chronicles and bends into illuminating shapes. My own best (pessimistic) guess is that some Black viewers will defer watching it to ward off a kind of “trauma fatigue.” My guarded advice on this is to somehow conjoin one’s horror at The Underground Railroad’s content with the exhilaration of watching an already major filmmaker leap toward higher ground as an emergent American master of the magical-realist movie epic. Only now does it occur to me to ask: Does America have any other magical-realist filmmakers like this? Did we ever?

The Underground Railroad is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.