Amazon UK TV review: The Underground Railroad
Ivan Radford | On 16, May 2021
“All who journey on the railroad must be documented in the manifest. How else will we account for the souls entrusted to this campaign?” Fletcher (Sean Bridgers), a conductor on the Underground Railroad, tells Cora (Thuso Mbedu). That’s our introduction to the train network that runs through Barry Jenkins’ series, based on the novel of the same title by Colson Whitehead. The Underground Railroad in real life was a metaphor for the people and homes that secretly helped Black people to move across the Deep South and escape slavery. Here, it’s brought beautifully, literally to life – a figure of speech turned into a myth and grown into more than just a story. “Who built all this?” asks Caesar (Aaron Pierre), who escapes alongside Cora. “Who builds anything in this country?” comes the reply.
In an interview with the LA Times, Jenkins spoke about how, as a young boy, he imagined his grandad, a docker, helping to build the railroad. It’s only fitting that the railroad he realises on screen isn’t a piece of CGI but an actual, constructed thing, a piece of beautiful production design that gives a physical quality to this path to freedom, one that takes a record of all its passengers so that their stories can be preserved for future generations.
The tracks, though, rarely run smooth, and the railroad also represents the arduous journey that enslaved people would have to undergo to reach freedom. “If you want to see what this nation’s all about, you’ve got to ride the rails,” advises Fletcher. That the sights from inside the subterranean carriages are essentially unseen is grimly apt – as we follow Cora on her painful trip north, the ordeal only seems to become more traumatic. From South Carolina and North Carolina to Tennessee and Indiana, every glimpse she has of daylight at the end of the tunnel seems to turn into another hidden curve. Those who seem to be allies are just as bad as the plantation owner she’s left behind – even a job in a South Carolina museum that appears to offer her paid income requires her to act out plantation life, only for the white proprietor to tell her that she needs to be more “authentic”.
“There’s nothing here but pain,” Caesar warns Cora early on. “Pain and suffering.” While that sets the tone for what’s to come, there’s no sense of the show exploiting or lingering on the horrors of slavery for sensationalist, shock effect. The violence is, it must be said, extremely upsetting – particularly in the opening episode – and viewers would do well to pace themselves as they work through it. Even on-set, Jenkins had therapists to help the cast process the material. But it’s also sensitively told, a harrowing portrait of inhumanity that takes care not to lose its own sense of humanity.
Jenkins has always been a storyteller who captures love as evocatively as he presents hate and, from Cora fighting to help her friend Lovey (Zsané Jhé) to William Jackson Harper’s freeborn Royal providing a hint of romantic possibility towards the end of the series, there is loyalty and friendship to be found amid what is simultaneously a quest towards hope and a tour of nightmares. Throughout, Nicholas Britell’s stunning soundtrack swells with heartfelt strings and dissipates into pained pianos, accompanying the immersive sound design with a recurring motif that sounds like a train whistle getting darker, more dissonant and more complex as it descends down augmented minor steps.
The opening episode introduces us to someone else determined to find the railway: bounty hunter Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who obsessively pursues Cora after he failed to find her mother, Mabel, who fled the Randall plantation when Cora was a girl. Joel Edgerton plays him with a grizzled fanaticism, instilled in him from his youth, and a surprisingly complexity. Ridgeway’s back-story takes up just 10 pages of Whitehead’s novel, but the show delves into it in more depth, and his prejudice and resentment is rooted in his toxic relationship with his father (Peter Mullan).
And yet this isn’t Ridgeway’s story – Edgerton and Mullan’s excellent performances are just part of a uniformly magnificent ensemble. Chase W Dillon delivers one of the most fascinating performances as Homer, the young Black boy who accompanies Ridgeway and follows his instructions. He’s not enslaved by Ridgeway, and the bounty hunter occasionally shows signs of protection and compassion towards him, but Homer’s sleeping arrangements make it clear the toll his young existence has already taken.
Pierre also shines as Caesar, who has a love for reading – in particular, Gulliver’s Travels – and encourages and supports Cora at the start of her journey. Later, the always-excellent Chukwudi Iwuji is marvellous as Mingo, an occupant of Indiana’s Valentine Farm who knows his worth (to the point where he’s bought his and his family’s freedom) and isn’t afraid to demonstrate it to visitors through the farm’s self-sustaining society.
There’s a plurality of experiences within this on-rails narrative, and Jenkins and his writing team ensure that there’s time to delve into every nuance and layer they encounter. From Moonlight to If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins has always displayed a profound understanding of the power of close-ups and eye contact; intercut with the narrative are tableaus of characters gazing directly at the camera, at once defiant and sorrowful, both incriminating the viewer and inviting them to empathise. A montage late on takes us through a sea of open faces, accompanied by a monologue that’s one of the most powerful things you’ll see on TV this year.
From those moments of striking stillness to a gut-wrenchingly tense sequence of people silently walking towards a church, the pacing is immaculate. A 20-minute episode slotted into the second half expands the tale of Fanny Briggs without losing momentum, while a 40-minute episode is devoted to Ridgeway’s childhood flashbacks without losing focus. Details scattered throughout the longer episodes repeatedly pay off round the bend, from the breathtaking opening composition to a brief glimpse of a snake and Cora’s decision to pick up okra seeds as well as a hatchet before setting out on her journey.
For all the moving and heart-wrenching stops along the way – each state that we reach has its own distinct landscape and tone – there is no doubt that this is all Cora’s journey, and Thuso Mbedu is never less than magnetic in the lead role, playing Cora as resilient even when vulnerable. The more we travel with her, the more we feel her growing rehabilitation, culminating in a cathartic meditation on motherhood and sherphering others.
It’s Mbedu’s performance that gives The Underground Railroad its backbone, driving the gripping story forward. Two crucial decisions late on give Cora a fundamental agency in her rehumanisation, framing the story not only as one of navigating trauma but of building and rebuilding. Key to that is the show’s wider emphasis on actively recording people’s experiences. Like the railroad itself, this small-screen masterpiece is an astounding achievement that, with every rich, dense chapter, grows into more than just a story: it’s a tapestry of lives painted for posterity. In exchange for riding the train, Fletcher explains, passengers must first share their story. “You may speak as much or as little as you like,” he implores. “But you must speak.”
The Underground Railroad is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.