‘The Underground Railroad’ Beautifully Adapts Colson Whitehead’s Masterpiece

Director Barry Jenkins applies the ‘Black Gaze’ to a slavery narrative

One of the first images is both gorgeous and terrifying: a woman and a man, slowly falling into a fathomless abyss, bodies dropping alongside an endless ladder. These are Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), runaway slaves tumbling down the rabbit hole of freedom. The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning 2016 novel, is pregnant with such harrowing eye candy. These ravishing moments of fury, fear, frustration, and flight are Jenkins’ greatest contribution to source material that hardly needs improvement. And though it may not always capture the anthropological or psychological depth of Whitehead’s exquisite, dense, vivid prose, the filmmaker nearly matches the book’s searing indignation.

Or at least it seems that way from the show’s initial two episodes, the only ones I had access to before writing this brief preview—not really a review, since it’s not comprehensive. I’m thankful I couldn’t binge, though, since I’ve been mulling over those first two hours ever since. If the rest of the show is as nourishing, then The Underground Railroad is a banquet, and probably best digested over time. It’s visceral, willfully obscure at times, potent regardless. The book condenses worlds of detail into tightly packed paragraphs, while the miniseries offers up febrile images that grow to make more sense with an accumulated power. The show rewards repeat viewings. It also makes for a stunning companion to the novel, as a dramatized and loving reinterpretation that, yes, simplifies; but also clarifies, in certain ways unique to visual storytelling.

Cora is the narrative center and emotional weight, a young Georgian woman born as property to a mother-turned-runaway-slave named Mabel whom she never knew. “The first and last thing my mama gave me was apologies,” she says in a montage-driven prelude, staring down the camera with anguish, resolve, and the stirrings of agency. It’s one of many lines that Jenkins lifts from the book almost verbatim, showcasing the dazzling, concise poetry of his source material. If her legacy is to flee, then strapping Caesar (Aaron Pierre) picked the right companion when he asks her to escape with him. She initially turns him down, but it’s only a matter of time.

Her home and prison is the Randall Plantation, an estate where two brothers oversee their contribution to the South’s peculiar institution. Jenkins introduces that manor house with a sweeping crane shot that, a few generations ago, might have felt grandiose. Here, it’s stomach-churning, like an abattoir reveal in a highbrow horror film. Rolling up to the manor: Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) a relentless slave hunter with a hulking, sunken man locked up in a cage.

The book identifies the captive as Big Anthony; if Jenkins mentions his name, it’s in passing. And soon enough, Big Anthony is put on display for a garden party. White landowners laugh and eat, with the stoic slaves gathered on the sidelines, as they all watch Big Anthony’s flesh whipped off his body. Then he’s set on fire. “It’s time,” Caesar says to Cora. She doesn’t say no.

The ten episodes in The Underground Railroad announce themselves as chapters, roughly mirroring the book’s structure. For the most part, these are geographic: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. And the engine for this journey is the titular transport, a fictionalized and literalized version of the legendarily metaphorical patchwork emancipation system. This isn’t just secret whispers and clandestine notes; this is a Goddamned bona-fide train deep beneath the ground. “Who built all this?’ Cora says to the guide who takes her down below. The reply: “Who built anything in this country?”

Whitehead’s book won its acclaim for using this magical invention alongside painfully true details of America’s slave trade. Jenkins’s contribution is to translate those devastating facts, and that one wonderful fantasy, into a living, breathing, temporal space, assigning visuals to the narrative and faces to the names.

The next episode recounts Cora and Caesar’s time in South Carolina, at a state-run facility with clean dormitories, schools, and jobs that focus on what they call “the betterment of Negro life.” It’s actually nice. The duo, dressed-up and relishing an outdoor Social, discuss an upcoming train scheduled to stop at their underground railroad station. They both decide to stay, since life seems so promising there.

But Cora’s an actor in a tableaux vivant slavery display at the Museum of Natural Wonders, and watches the kindly curator demonstrating—with too much enthusiasm—how to use a whip. “That was a lifetime ago,” he says with a disturbing sigh. Caesar’s boss promises to move him from factory work to more cerebral tasks, even giving him a copy of Homer’s The Odyssey. “Not approved for Negro reading,” he says with mischievous pride. Something about their surroundings starts to feel as though it’s a put-on. And, once the sterilization talk and syphilis experiments bubble to the surface, they know it’s time to get the next train. If Ridgeway doesn’t catch them first.

The production’s handsome budget allows for a sumptuous invocation of that agonizing time. And Jenkins is clearly honoring the opportunity to commemorate that culture of bondage. He even released a 50-minute assembly of footage called “The Gaze,” a wordless compendium of character portraits from the shoot. Even more arresting? “In Aeternum,” a 2-minute teaser-trailer of moments played in reverse—with the show’s lush orchestral score playing backwards as well. You get the sense of a restless, searching filmmaker trying to make sense of his own ambivalence and determination.

In interviews, Jenkins has described his hesitation about taking on slavery, creating new images of Southern chattel that might just reinforce representations of bondage. But these feel different: it’s as though Jenkins is filling Hollywood’s memory bank with not only new images but new ways to see. He’s categorized it as the Black Gaze, to counter the White Gaze that has defined film for so long. It’s a counterweight to the swooning whitewash of films like Gone with the Wind, the slavesploitation of lurid spectacles like Mandingo, the bracing liberal guilt of everything from groundbreaking Roots to righteous revenge thriller Django Unchained. It’s a welcome corrective. And a necessary addition.

 

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

One thought on “‘The Underground Railroad’ Beautifully Adapts Colson Whitehead’s Masterpiece

  • May 19, 2021 at 1:12 pm
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    This painfully honest novel is one of the most exceptional accounts of the terrifying and brutal struggle for survival that I have ever read.

    Reply

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