The last thing you want in a TV show portraying slavery is phony sensitivity. Don’t let that all-encompassing historical monstrosity off the hook with a chilly, inoffensive lecture. So credit director Barry Jenkins for turning up The Underground Railroad’s heat. The 10-part miniseries (streaming May 14 on Amazon Prime Video) adapts Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel with every tool in the cinematic toolkit. In a terrifying 19th century located halfway between myth and your newsfeed, the whip cracks sound like gunshots. Magic-hour light shines so bright on enslaved men and women that their bodies are outlined with halos. There are flashbacks, flash-forwards, and a font so huge that “Georgia” splits across two lines. Outkast, the Pharcyde, and Michael Jackson play over end credits. The anachronism is light, but telling: A white man references FUBU more than a century early. And there is the Railroad itself, rendered in Whitehead’s imagining as an actual train carrying liberated Black people from one dire state to another.
At the center of this magical-realist swirl stands Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman born into bondage. Her plantation is the hell-world setting for the first chapter, which depicts atmospheric violence with bloody authenticity. Jenkins draws you into the circumscribed life on the plantation, filming the surrounding nature with a tormenting beauty. The trees are part of the cage. And a white man’s arrival is an occasion of elemental horror, silencing all conversation and music. Yet there are notes of trippy satire. The Southern gentry are sociopathic dandies, enjoying a courtly dance while they burn a screaming man to death. The camera cuts to the tortured soul’s own POV — but also lingers on a shot of his incinerating flesh.
Cora’s fellow captive Caesar (Aaron Pierre) plans an escape. Their journey leads into a quest through various ruinations of Black life. South Carolina offers a new existence in fancy dresswear, where the escapees dance at a ball full of self-congratulatory white “sponsors.” That glossy refuge has a paranoid underbelly, with an eerie medical twist. Then comes the religious doom of North Carolina, where Blackness is a death sentence, and a mile of ritual lynchings leads to a town full of dedicated white Christians. Other characters beyond Cora and Caesar step into the spotlight. You’re getting the feeling for Underground Railroad’s semi-anthology structure, every stop a fresh twilight zone of racial terror and national parable. A Tennessee episode moves slowly through a burnt plague forest, which someone literally calls “a trail of tears and death.”
Whitehead’s novel was a phenomenon, and Jenkins is fresh off Oscar seasons for Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. So there’s a no-expense-spared quality to Railroad’s epic sweep. Every episode offers a great performance, like Calvin Leon Smith as a prisoner starving himself and Mychal-Bella Bowman as a girl trapped in an attic. Chukwudi Iwuji is utterly mesmerizing as Mingo, a freedman-turned-capitalist with complicated aspirations to feed white money into his community. Mbedu brings power and pain to a part that requires endless hours of fear. Still, as a TV project The Underground Railroad often resembles something like The Fugitive, with a protagonist playing second fiddle to the latest guest star.
Jenkins excels at a dreamy state of intimacy, but the allegorical setting can turn distancing. We’re miles from Moonlight’s lush Miami or the director’s San Francisco reverie Medicine for Melancholy, where stratospheres of race and class came to life on screen with neorealist precision. Here, vivid characters keep getting trapped in abstract themespace. And the 320-page book has become a semi-shapeless streamer, with most episodes clocking over an hour. The middle chapters focus on legendary bounty hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), whose daddy issues are as boring as they are omnipresent. I like Edgerton, but the character calls for more internal chaos than his trademark perturbation allows.
Jenkins and his writing staff make a lot of specific choices in their adaptation, none more telling than the opening. Whitehead started his novel with a majestic feat of prose, telling the entire biography of Cora’s enslaved grandmother in six pages of traveling torment: captivity to captivity, sold once and sold again, her three dead husbands and her four dead children. Tricky to film, but not impossible; the mind goes to the two-minute apartment montage from City of God, with multiple eras of the drug trade seen through one single apartment — or imagine Up’s life montage as a transatlantic nightmare of brutal slavery economics. The TV series never dramatizes that sequence, and opens instead with stark images: Cora falling, the light of a train, a graphic birth sequence, multiple people staring at the camera. The instinct is magnification, a zeroing-in on key plot moments and characters. But the loss of greater context feels worrisomely like an in medias res contrivance, a way to ramp up the energy level before the story leisurely unfolds. And a certain obviousness slips into the dialogue, which struggles to incorporate Whitehead’s free-floating authorial voice. In the Tennessee episode, two different people use that loaded phrase “a trail of tears and death,” the equivalent of underlining a theme that’s already in all caps.
The better later hours veer into an all-Black community, so utopian it’s on a vineyard, where personal dramas turn political. There’s suddenly a large supporting cast, which adds a new depth to the dramatic complexity, as different characters struggle against racism and oppression in diametrically opposed ways. Even the miniseries’ middling stretches effectively conjure an America of hidden worlds and ruined civilizations, full of secret passageways and fresh unburied corpses. “Make you wonder if there ain’t no real places to escape to,” Cora says, “only places to run from.” As every chance at freedom becomes a new prison, Railroad’s humane horror offers more sympathy than hope.