Barry Jenkins’ ‘The Underground Railroad’ Is Harrowing And Stunning. Don’t Binge It.

Written by on May 17, 2021

This piece accommodates slight spoilers for “The Underground Railroad.” 

I took a deep breath earlier than beginning “The Underground Railroad,” Barry Jenkins’ TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the identical identify. 

The restricted sequence, which premiered Friday on Amazon Prime Video, is a harrowing but beautiful 10-hour saga starring charming newcomer Thuso Mbedu as Cora, an enslaved girl on a journey to freedom throughout the antebellum South by the use of a literal subterranean prepare with conductors and secret passageways. Cora escapes the Randall Plantation in Georgia and makes it to the Carolinas, Tennessee and Indiana, with slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) on her heels at each flip. Ridgeway, who didn’t seize Cora’s mom when she escaped the plantation, is hellbent on catching Cora.

By the top of Episode 1, titled “Georgia,” I didn’t assume I’d ever end the sequence.

Audiences meet Cora at a turning level, as a person named Caesar (Aaron Pierre) needs to flee and is urging Cora to return with him. She denies him till she bears witness to the sequence’ most horrifying scene: Audiences see escapee Anthony (Elijah Everett) tortured and burned alive for spectacle after making an attempt to run away. The scene is sufficient to make you surrender on the present. Maybe you, expensive reader, began “The Underground Railroad” over the weekend and have already pressed pause.

For sequence director Barry Jenkins, recognized for “Moonlight” and “If Beale Road Might Speak,” that’s completely OK.

Barry Jenkins on the set of "The Underground Railroad."

Barry Jenkins on the set of “The Underground Railroad.”

“I feel the explanation why I made it as a TV present and never a characteristic movie, is so when you have got the response that you just had, even for the time being of getting it, you’ll be able to pause, you’ll be able to quick ahead and identical to you probably did, you’ll be able to set that shit down and be like, ‘ what, possibly I’ll come again to it, however not proper now,’” Jenkins mentioned in a Zoom interview forward of the sequence premiere. “I needed to empower the viewer the identical means I needed to empower the forged and the crew who have been making these scenes.”

“The Underground Railroad” will not be a straightforward watch by any means. Slave narratives and Black trauma tales should present acts of violence and brutality towards Black Individuals to remain true to the horrors of racism and white supremacy. After a devastating yr with the pandemic, an onslaught of police violence and different atrocities, the saga of an enslaved girl hits like a cinder block in your feelings. 

The sequence additionally lands at a time the place critics and moviegoers have been pushing again on a litany of trauma tales about Black folks of the previous and current, whether or not via fictional tales like mind-bending thriller “Antebellum” and police capturing drama “Queen & Slim,” or tales rooted in reality just like the Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet” and Solomon Northup’s story “12 Years A Slave.” 

However with Jenkins’ regular hand, “The Underground Railroad” avoids most of the pitfalls of these movies — and never simply due to format. Jenkins’ decisions of what brutality was essential to indicate audiences, what to make his forged see and expertise, and what, as an alternative, to inform make “The Underground Railroad” in contrast to another slavery or trauma story. They might seem to be refined distinctions, however their influence on the storytelling make them completely essential and noteworthy.

“Sometimes, if you watch a present or film like this, the enslaved are yelling out in ache or they’re begging for his or her lives. And I made the selection that he wouldn’t do this on this second,” Jenkins mentioned, referring to the scene wherein Anthony is burned alive. In it, the characters calls out to the enslaved witnesses and tells his brutalizer, “God rattling you.”

“I used to be attempting to determine, in exhibiting this, what was I additionally exhibiting inside it that I felt like gave the character some company,” Jenkins mentioned. 

Arnold Ridgeway, portrayed by Joel Edgerton, is a slave catcher in "The Underground Railroad."

Arnold Ridgeway, portrayed by Joel Edgerton, is a slave catcher in “The Underground Railroad.”

Many in Hollywood mentioned Jenkins was the one one that might pull off the difference, and the director exhibits that to be true all through his first foray into episodic storytelling. His decisions are particularly on show in Episodes 5 and 6, when he Jenkins leans on his forged to relay haunting tales about Cora’s mates from the Randall Plantation.

Each episodes are set in Tennessee after Cora is captured by Ridgeway and his freed-but-loyal younger assistant Homer (a scene-stealing 11-year-old Chase Dillon). For about 90 seconds, Cora hears excruciating particulars concerning the destiny of her finest buddy Lovey after she was captured. Although Ridgeway is talking, the digital camera stays educated on Cora as she cries studying about her buddy’s torturous dying. There isn’t any flashback to Lovey’s torture — that’d imply touring again in time and place. Cora doesn’t violently react, however makes use of her eyes and physique language to articulate her rage within the second. It’s a quiet but stirring scene.

“We see the facility and phrases, you see the facility in phrases, and we additionally see the dignity within the resolve, and her doing no matter she will to not enable him the response he’s after,” Jenkins mentioned. “However crucial factor, we don’t lower to this girl, hanging over a spike and all these various things that he’s describing.” 

In Episode 6, Ridgeway once more relays a narrative to Cora, this time about her beloved Caesar, who was tortured by a white mob in South Carolina. Edgerton’s supply lands like he’s studying the traces straight out of Whitehead’s novel, with a driving tempo so vivid that it looks as if the occasions are unfolding proper earlier than his eyes. Cora’s muffled sobs shade the heinous description so acutely your coronary heart sinks with hers.

Caesar, portrayed by Aaron Pierre, runs away with Cora in Episode 1 of "The Underground Railroad."

Caesar, portrayed by Aaron Pierre, runs away with Cora in Episode 1 of “The Underground Railroad.”

Mbedu’s efficiency pulls your entire sequence collectively. The South African actor, who was forged after studying scenes with actor Stephan James (“If Beale Road Might Speak”), has a compelling vulnerability behind her eyes. A lot of her energy on display lies in how the load of her journey — not simply bodily throughout the South, however internally, from a deep, darkish place to a softer resolve — is expressed in her physique language.

“I knew that initially of the story, this girl will not be going to be allowed to specific herself via voice. She’s acquired to specific herself in physique language, via eye contact or via eye avoidance,” Jenkins mentioned. “I noticed all these items in Thuso’s audition that have been actually wealthy. I can by no means have recognized that she’s going to be that good, however I noticed the potential for that. That scene is an ideal instance.”

Finally, it took me about two weeks to look at your entire sequence, with an admittedly lengthy break after the primary episode, brief gaps between the primary half, after which a mad sprint to finish the sequence earlier than talking with Jenkins. Maybe it’d be value rewatching these last episodes, absorbing them on their very own and letting the ultimate cease on Cora’s bodily and psychological journey really sink in.

The director mentioned the final three episodes are his favorites, and he hopes viewers will stick to the sequence till the top. At one level, he mentioned, there was speak of releasing episodes in batches, beginning with the primary three after which trickling out the remainder. 

I requested him for recommendation for watch the present, and after working via a instructed schedule — watch the premiere, Episodes 2 and three collectively, then Episodes 4, 5, 6 and seven, and finish by watching Episodes 8, 9 and 10 every on their very own — he reversed course, emphasizing the significance of giving audiences their very own company to completely soak up the sequence.

He simply has one request.

“I can’t inform you what to do. I can inform you what to not do,” he mentioned. “Don’t watch 10 straight hours of this. Don’t. That isn’t my intention.”


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