It is inevitably fraught for a white critic like me to discuss a work of art specifically about the Black American experience.
There’s a risk of coming off as patronizing at best and appropriative at worst, of seemingly trying to relate the pain, trauma, and horror that often rests on Black Americans to the personal pains white viewers may face in day-to-day life. Great art tells universal stories out of specific experiences, and it is possible and even desirable for white viewers to find personal resonance in the experiences of protagonists in movies like Do the Right Thing or 12 Years a Slave. But many such projects also ask these viewers to examine their own complicity in discrimination against Black people in America.
I may have dark stuff in my past, but I am not living beneath the same crushing weight of centuries of slavery and systemic racism.
A further complication: The art by Black artists most roundly celebrated is often about Black trauma. I love both Do the Right Thing and 12 Years a Slave, but both films ask us to look unflinchingly at the horrible ways America treats Black citizens. Rom-coms, family dramas, and superhero stories that center on Black characters and are less focused on Black trauma certainly exist, but the easiest way for a Black-centric project to win acclaim from the mainstream white critics who dominate our cultural landscape (including, again, myself) is to offer up some sort of trenchant social commentary, to focus on the horrific.
So I want to tread carefully in discussing The Underground Railroad, a 10-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel. In its portrayal of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave running less toward freedom than she is running away from slavery, the series tells a story about systemic racism and the perniciousness of white supremacy, offering an uncompromising look at the lasting and ongoing burdens of white America’s inhumane treatment of Black Americans. In no way should it be hailed as a story anyone can see themselves in.
But director Barry Jenkins (who won an Oscar in 2017 for his screenplay for Moonlight) finds a way to encompass all of humanity in his work without so much as hinting at easy forgiveness for those who either do great evil or are complicit in great evil. The Underground Railroad made me feel things about my own life and personal pain very deeply, while never letting me forget that while I could relate to aspects of this story, it is not my own.
This series is a specific story about the treatment of one specific group of humans in one specific country. But it’s also a story about humans, and Jenkins gives you space to find yourself in it without sacrificing the focus of this story — even if you might not like what you see.
For an adaptation of a great novel by an acclaimed filmmaker, The Underground Railroad sure acts like a TV show. Good.
Too often, when a great filmmaker makes a TV show, they simply stretch out their normal storytelling style to span more hours than they typically would. There’s a reason that Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 10-episode Amazon series Too Old to Die Young barely made a ripple when it was released in the summer of 2019, even though it hailed from a hip young director: The thing was slow as molasses. The cool, hypnotic rhythms of Refn’s work became glacial when expanded to fill so many episodes, most of which were over an hour long.
The Underground Railroad avoids this problem almost entirely. A couple of episodes sag, but for the most part, the series crafts a propulsive, episodic narrative whose storytelling draws from TV classics like The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive as Cora travels from place to place along a literal underground railroad — with a train and everything — trying to figure out precisely what’s wrong about every new location she finds herself in.
A lot of this structure comes directly from Whitehead’s novel, whose central conceit took Cora from the realities of plantation slavery in the early 1800s through several locations that became metaphorical looks at the Black American experience after the Civil War. Whitehead never sits you down and says, “The South Carolina section is all about the promise and ultimate withering away of Reconstruction” — and the South Carolina chapter (the second episode of the series) is about more than just that. But in its depiction of a world where Black freedom comes with heavy boundaries placed upon it by white people, it reflects America’s failure to properly restructure itself after the war all the same.
Here’s what ties together Whitehead’s conceit: Even as Cora is sort of traveling forward through time, she’s endlessly pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway (played by Joel Edgerton in the series) who longs to drag her back into slavery. The closer Cora gets to something like a world where Black Americans can live with freedom and dignity, the more doggedly Ridgeway pursues her. The country’s racist past always has a hand joined to its racist present, and Whitehead’s use of Ridgeway is a far more compelling exploration of this idea than any big, heartrending speech Cora could give on the matter (although several of the series’ characters deliver some amazing speeches).
Jenkins and his team have not only kept the episodic structure of Whitehead’s novel but made it more pronounced in subtle ways. Each episode of the series could fairly easily stand alone as its own tale, with casual viewers having only the most cursory understanding of the main characters and their situation.
Indeed, the series occasionally steps outside of Cora’s point of view entirely to fill in the histories of other characters around the story’s edges. These non-Cora vignettes were also present in the novel, but Jenkins and his team have made them important palate cleansers. Jenkins even changes aspect ratios and uses different filmmaking techniques to offer a kind of dreamy immediacy. The camera might pull up into a God’s-eye view of a village aflame, or an episode might unfold largely without dialogue until one long, blissfully talky scene near its end.
This heightening of the story’s already episodic nature allows Jenkins’s direction to judiciously select the moments in which it will highlight the utter inhumanity of white America’s treatment of Black America. The Underground Railroad is constructed like a series designed to be binge-watched — typically, the best shows to watch in a marathon have strongly delineated episodic stories that hook up into longer, serialized stories — but binge-watching this series would also risk reducing it to a pulp thriller.
To my mind, the show’s achievement is making every episode feel so full as to allow you to watch an individual installment, walk away for a while feeling like you’ve got a complete story, then return when you’re ready for another story featuring some of the same characters. (In that sense, it is somewhat similar to Steve McQueen’s 2020 anthology series Small Axe, though that series featured new characters in every episode, which The Underground Railroad does not.)
This structure allows the series to be brutal without ever feeling like it’s being brutal for brutality’s sake. The first episode features some horrific images of slavery, but it picks and chooses its moments. In one sequence, Jenkins cuts between white party guests barely paying attention to a slave being whipped in front of them, to the other slaves watching the whipping, to the face of the man being whipped with the man whipping him out of focus in the background. The build of the sequence allows the viewer to prepare themselves for what they’re about to see, while also making it clear that no one should want to see it.
A scene in which a slave master whips a slave has become almost a requisite of stories set in the pre-Civil War South, which perhaps speaks to how deeply the 1970s miniseries Roots (which The Underground Railroad consciously nods to at times) has codified how we tell stories about slavery in America. These tropes can feel ossified, in others’ hands.
But Jenkins makes this scene feel less like a trope or empty spectacle. He simultaneously ensures that the slave — a man we’ve barely known before this point — retains his humanity while those who don’t seem particularly bothered by what’s happening retain their humanity, in a different way. Jenkins doesn’t make the partygoers unfeeling monsters; he makes them desensitized, disaffected products of a society that actively encourages ignoring the pain and suffering in front of them, which consequently makes them key contributors to that pain and suffering.
The Underground Railroad’s sound design also deserves special notice. In particular, the sounds of metal clanking are often boosted subtly in the soundtrack, so that whenever a door is swinging on its rusty hinges or a blacksmith is pounding away in his shop, we hear that sound a little louder within the soundtrack than we would if we occupied the same setting in reality.
It took me much of the series to pick up on how the prominence of the sound mimics the book’s use of Ridgeway, who constantly reminds Cora of how the institution of slavery threatens to recapture her. The clanking of metal recalls the shackles placed on slaves in the first episode; even when Cora is standing in a seemingly empty building, the sound of a chain jangling somewhere subtly haunts her.
The Underground Railroad tells a universal story about moving through PTSD — but it is still a very specific version of PTSD
In thinking about the series’ use of metallic noises, I started to understand why I found The Underground Railroad particularly moving, for reasons beyond its story and storytelling.
In Cora’s journey, I found a resonance with my own recent experiences of trying to claw my identity away from a past that would swallow it whole. The entirety of my adult life has felt like peeling back layers of rotten, nasty junk, some of which were bestowed upon me at my birth. The work of trying to escape the past and live in a better, freer present is the work of many in marginalized communities and of everyone who is fighting PTSD or other psychological issues stemming from trauma.
But here is where the double bind I mentioned at the start of this review comes into play. It is dispiritingly common for a story about specifically Black pain to be universalized into a narrative about either overcoming or succumbing to that pain, which inures white audience members from examining their own complicity in Black pain. After all, we’ve all felt pain at some point, right? And sometimes we overcome it or succumb to it? Wow! What a story about the human spirit! (So goes this kind of critical argument, at least.)
The flip side is possible, too. When a story is so specifically about Black pain that universalizing it is difficult for white audience members, the temptation on the part of white viewers is to turn that story into an accurate telling of “just the way things are.” John Singleton’s 1991 classic Boyz n the Hood, for instance, is an astonishingly well-made coming of age story set in South Central Los Angeles. But for too many white studio executives who tried to replicate the film’s success, its approach boiled down to “That’s just how things are in South Central, so that’s how you tell stories set there.”
The problem rarely has much to do with the Black artists telling these stories. Singleton had absolutely no control over how Boyz n the Hood would filter out into the mainstream culture. The fault is usually with white executives, critics, awards voters, and viewers, who are consistently eager to flatten complicated stories about Black America into a series of tropes designed to distance ourselves from our own complicity in a deeply racist society. Watching the right movies, then, becomes a kind of progressive self-vindication: I am vicariously experiencing this pain, and that makes me a good person.
I have no idea what white Americans who aren’t me will make of The Underground Railroad, but I do think Jenkins has found some ways around this dilemma. Notice how often he centers the act of viewing brutalities both grand and mundane: The early scene with the whipping, for instance, lingers on both the white audience and the Black audience for said whipping, observing the callousness with which the white viewers regard the spectacle, just so much window dressing for an afternoon picnic.
The strange time dilation of Whitehead’s novel also helps the series avoid a certain distancing effect. With other stories about slavery, white viewers sometimes come away with the incorrect notion that the inhumanity of racism is confined to a handful of specific periods in history: Even if we’ve still got problems today, at least it’s not like that anymore. Once Cora leaves the plantation, the new worlds she moves through often have eerie resonances with the present, in ways that discombobulate viewers who might be tempted to resign these stories to the distant past.
But perhaps Jenkins’s boldest gambit is one whose impact I’m only just now understanding as I write these words. I saw myself in Cora, despite our many obvious differences. She is in some ways an archetypal character, one who attempts to shed her past as efficiently as possible, only to realize getting rid of the past is never that easy. I want to shed my past, too, and have found it stickier than I hoped it would be.
Healing wounds is sometimes a lifelong process, and Cora is a character onto whom anyone in the audience could project their own journeys through their own pain. That projection is good. It’s what art is for, on some level.
But just when you might be getting comfortable with your read of The Underground Railroad — any read whatsoever — Jenkins will cut in images of the many Black characters from throughout the series, each one staring solemnly at the camera. I found this idea a little over-earnest, like a constant acknowledgment of the ghosts that haunt Cora, until it clicked in my head that by asking us to identify so strongly with Cora, Jenkins is inviting these ghosts to haunt us.
We place ourselves within the stories we consume. It’s a human impulse; to see yourself in Cora or any other character on The Underground Railroad is natural, and through the identification and empathy you build with her, you might better empathize with people in your own time and place. But as you are witnessing what happens to these characters, they are looking right back out at you, through the camera, across the gulfs of time. And what do they see when they look back?
The Underground Railroad debuts Friday, May 14, on Amazon Prime Video. It runs for 10 episodes that range in length from 20 minutes to 77 minutes. Yes, really. Trust me — it works.