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The Underground Railroad review: A sweeping, complex narrative of American slavery

In The Underground Railroad, the title isn’t a metaphor. It’s an actual set of tracks and carriages ferrying enslaved people through the Deep South’s underbelly. In exchange for boarding the train, travellers must share their story – as much or as little of it as they wish, we are told, but they must share something.

Based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, this 10-part series is directed by Barry Jenkins, the lyrical auteur behind Best Picture winner Moonlight and the Oscar-nominated If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s a sweeping and complex work, redolent of the feted 1977 miniseries Roots.

It stars Thuso Mbedu as a young enslaved woman setting out from Georgia on a bid for freedom. She travels from state to state, with stops in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana. Chasing after her is Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), an unrelenting, obsessive bounty hunter.

Jenkins tells Cora’s story deftly, powerfully, and uncompromisingly. The show is violent at times, but how could it not be? Back in The Underground Railroad’s infancy, Jenkins relied on a focus group, asking Black Atlanta residents whether the adaptation should be made at all. Ninety per cent said yes, Jenkins told The New York Times, and told him: “Tell it, but you have to show everything. It needs to be hard. It needs to be brutal.”

For Jenkins, not showing that violence would strip the show of some of its significance and, crucially, its verisimilitude. “If we assume that we can’t look at these images, if we can’t bear witness to this brutality, we risk erasing my ancestors, and we risk this vacuum, this chasm, this cavity,” he recently told The Independent. “Because I can’t not tell the truth. I can’t not tell the truth.”

It’s a testament to Jenkins’s unflinching storytelling that the series never comes off as didactic or exploitative; the most painful scenes read instead as a depiction of a country’s history, and a powerful acknowledgment of fact. Or, as one character puts it in the first episode: “If you want to see what this nation’s all about, you’ve got to ride the rails. Just look outside as you speed through, and you’ll see the true face of America.”

Cora’s journey is a stifling chase towards a freedom that keeps eluding her. Seemingly well-meaning white people are revealed to be just as cruel as their plantation-owning peers; freedom too often turns out to be an illusion. Cora persists, even as dangers constantly threaten to pull her back into enslavement – Ridgeway, hounds, “every white man with a shotgun”.

As Cora, Mbedu vacillates supremely between determination and a bruised vulnerability; awards will surely follow. Aaron Pierre and William Jackson Harper, meanwhile, shine respectively as an enslaved man who escapes with Cora and as a railroad operator.

It’s hard to think of a filmmaker better suited to adapt Whitehead’s book. Jenkins’s camera knows when to linger, building moments of deep, meaningful emotion. The series’ format is ambitious – most instalments last for around an hour, but Jenkins doesn’t hesitate to insert a 20-minute episode, a startling break in the show’s format that convincingly shakes up its cadence.

The Underground Railroad reunites Jenkins with Nicholas Britell, the Academy Award-nominated composer behind the Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk scores. Britell’s music, full of portentous strings and mournful pianos, lends Jenkins’s sprawling script an emotional ballast. It’s profoundly moving. 

The Underground Railroad is a historical work, but there is something chillingly contemporary about the white supremacy depicted onscreen. As such, the series succeeds in anchoring its narrative to the full context of racism throughout centuries. It compels us to reflect both on what happened and where those events have led us – how they continue to shape us and the world we live in.

The Underground Railroad airs on Amazon Prime Video on 14 May

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