‘The Underground Railroad’: A Dignified Representation of Black People During the Age of Our Greatest Indignity

"If ‘The 1619 Project’ were a series, this would be that series"
The Underground Railroad

If The Underground Railroad were the first-ever piece of media about the experience of African American slavery, the landscape of cinema at large, Black cinema in particular, could be entirely different today. Barry Jenkins did not come here to play with y’all and no games were played in either the creation or the production of this limited series. A certain mastery of craft and understanding of culture come together to deliver insights and parallels that speak to today way too easily.

Started From A Novel Now We Here

If you didn’t know, The Underground Railroad is an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel of the same name. It follows Cora Randall’s escape from a Georgia plantation for the rumored Underground Railroad. What she finds is no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora is pursued by a bounty hunter obsessed with bringing her back to the plantation since her mother Mabel is the only runaway he has never caught.

The Underground Railroad
Pictured (L-R): Amber Gray (Gloria Valentine), Peter de Jersey (John Valentine); Copyright: Amazon Studios

The Whole Truth And Nothing But

Following Cora’s journey through the antebellum South, The Underground Railroad connects the Black experience to every aspect of the United States’ rise to empire. There has never been a more dignified representation of Black people during the age of our greatest indignity. Equally, never has there been a more legible representation of the casual bigotry and normalized depravity of the United States’ colonial settlers. A subtle but increasingly tangible ingenuity is at play in the ways The Underground Railroad uses Cora’s travels to reveal the many different forms (shades, if you will) of white supremacy that exist at the foundations of this country’s core. If ‘The 1619 Project’ were a series, this would be that series. Unflinching and uncompromising yet aware and intentional down to the smallest detail of sight or sound. They do things with the idea of ‘the railroad’ that redefine how we can interpret history while elevating the period piece and slave narrative genres. It feels so much like the spiritual predecessor to Dee Rees’ Mudbound in how it addresses the ways Black folks are tied to this land through the land itself.

The Underground Railroad
Pictured: Thuso Mbedu as Cora Randall; Copyright: Amazon Studios

And The Emmy Goes To…

Like any series, there are actors in The Underground Railroad. Actors playing characters. Characters built on dramaturgical research and fleshed out by choices made by the actors and the director. To have all of this, and not one caricature?!? It shouldn’t be as impressive as it is, but it is amazing. Even though mammies, bucks, and pickaninnys are all designated and ascribed to characters, not once did a single stereotypical individual show up onscreen. The performances of the entire cast were on point, with no exception. Every character is understood, even without a backstory, you know why anyone person is doing any given thing. The writing needed to pull these performances off is of a seriously high caliber. I can’t stress this enough, even the people you hate – you understand, with crystal clarity. Huge shoutout to the writing team: Jacqueline Hoyt (The Leftovers, The Good Wife), Nathan C. Parker (Moon, Equals), with newcomers Allison Davis, Adrienne Rush, and Jihan Crowther. This better get all the awards and all the flowers. Then be taught in classrooms and be necessary viewing for seats in political office.

What Is An Ensemble But Actors Persevering?

As strange as this sentence looks, this is the most diverse cast in a slavery-centered piece. Jenkins recalls, “We’ve charted all these different swatches of color in the African diaspora in this show and in building the cast, I really sought that.” Not just diversity in the way we’ve become jaded in hearing, but also in the craft of designing a series. The entirety of The Underground Railroad rises and falls on its main character, Cora, played by up and coming South African actress-writer-director Thuso Mbedu. To say she commands the character does her work no justice. Mbedu’s rising star leads the way and holds weight alongside veteran actors like Joel Edgerton, Lily Rabe, and Chukwudi Iwuji. Definitely need to give props to eleven-year-old Chase Dillon who plays a super complex recurring character with so much understanding and mastery it comes across as an easy standout.

The Underground Railroad
Pictured: Joel Edgerton (Ridgeway) & Chase W. Dillon (Homer) Copyright: Amazon Studios

A Feast For The Senses

There ain’t nary a sight or sound in The Underground Railroad that isn’t charged with some forceful and complex energy. A child playing with rays of sunlight in an enclosed space. The POV of a man fading in and out of consciousness. The trilling of insects in the rural woods. The repetitive clanging of a hammer and anvil shaping links of molten iron. All of it used to tell the story and immerse the viewer in the time and space of the events. It all works in concert to disturbing effectiveness. When there is joy, you will feel it. When there is sorrow, you will know it. As grand and sweeping as The Underground Railroad is, it is really quite sparse. Nothing is wasted and there are these beautiful, surreal visual moments that capture the humanity of people treated inhumanely. Balanced with moments of grounding sound cues that follow the series like breadcrumbs to the next climax of the narrative. Add to that the really dope tracks that drop at the end of each episode. I won’t spoil them, but they run the gamut of the Black experience and give some extra grounding as well as a way to exit the heaviness of the story and come back to your own experience.

The Underground Railroad is out now on Amazon Video. If this hasn’t convinced you to see it, that’s okay. With all the Black brilliance in front of and behind the camera, you’ll make your way in good time. All aboard.

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The Underground Railroad

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  • Poet, MC, Nerd, All-Around Problem. Lover of words, verse, and geek media from The Bronx, NYC.

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