Amazon's 'The Underground Railroad' Adaptation Is an Intense, Unforgettable Series
Barry Jenkins' interpretation of Colson Whitehead's prize-winning novel is a cinematic journey best taken slowly.
Powering one’s way through Amazon Prime’s new limited series The Underground Railroad is difficult, and analyzing one’s understanding and stance on it is even harder. With works of art like this—Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly immediately comes to mind—there’s always a rush to deem them either masterworks or missteps, but the ambitious nature of such projects can lead to premature and misguided criticism. That being said, Amazon Prime’s The Underground Railroad is one of the most enthralling cinematic experiences out right now.
Created and directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), The Underground Railroad is a slavery drama based on Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel of the same name. The series primarily focuses on a young enslaved woman named Cora (Thuso Mbedu) whose mother infamously fled their plantation and abandoned her at a young age, and throughout the course of The Underground Railroad, viewers follow her throughout her never-ending search for freedom and safety.
Along Cora’s journey, she is accompanied by her fellow escapee Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and relentlessly pursued by the notorious slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his young Black sidekick Homer (Chase Dillon). After fleeing her lifelong plantation in Georgia—where she was ostracized by many of its enslaved inhabitants—Cora’s trek takes her to South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and beyond.
The Underground Railroad is able to transport her state-to-state over subsequent episodes because, contrary to the real-world understanding of the Underground Railroad, Amazon applies a thick layer of fantasy to its historical limited series and turns the Underground Railroad into a literal underground railroad.
The air of fantasy that wafts throughout the show is what makes it even possible to make it through The Underground Railroad’s trying and bleak tale. Jenkins’ magical—and frustratingly unreliable—railroad whisks Cora from place to place, and it’s easy to get invested in her story and hope that she’ll be able to evade the slave catcher who’s determined to bring her back to Georgia.
The Underground Railroad, as previously mentioned, isn’t that easy, though. Each stop in Cora’s constant search for an escape from America’s evils follows the same trajectory: temporary peace, the arrival of Ridgeway, and a whole lot of unhappy endings. It’s almost like a fucked-up version of A Series Of Unfortunate Events, but there’s no quirky, off-beat humor to distract you from the cycle of pain.
Still, blending fantasy with authentic representations of the Black American experience is what makes Jenkin’s series intriguing. Episode 2, in particular, features some of the show’s most peculiar moments. While taking shelter in a seemingly mixed-race utopian town in South Carolina, Cora works at a local museum that recreates the horrors of slavery with live actors. Those scenes at the museum almost feel like The Underground Railroad’s slight criticism of itself as well as other shows and films that bring viewers back to the days of slavery.
“Trauma porn” is a term used to critique that often pops up when discussing such works, and one could argue that The Underground Railroad should come with that stamp. The series opener is an abhorrent one-hour episode that features plenty of heartache and three brutal whippings, one of which had The Walking Dead-level gore and resulted in a slave being burned alive. Regardless of one’s excitement for Amazon’s new series, no Black person should have to watch that first episode, and furthermore, no one else should have to watch it to understand the context in which a slave would want to escape slavery.
However, after a truly disgusting first episode, the show explores Black pain, fear, and resilience in a much more poetic and far less traumatizing way, similar to how Black Horror is creatively depicted in shows and movies such as Atlanta and Get Out. Its vibrant visuals, enchanting orchestral soundtrack, and its stunning use of non-narrative footage all combine to make The Underground Railroad arguably one of the most artistic takes on the slave genre, but the innumerable artsy indulgences also add another layer as to why the show is so difficult to consume.
In addition to stomaching the series' unceasing emotional turmoil, The Underground Railroad is bloated. At a total of 10 episodes, while one particularly enjoyable episode has an unconventional 20-minute runtime, nearly every other episode lasts for one hour or longer. With far too much fat to justify, The Underground Railroad often drags nonessential scenes on for far too long.
The previously mentioned non-narrative shots—while admittedly gorgeous and thought-provoking—depict moments that feature slaves standing still and staring straight into the camera, but even they are also overused. Especially considering that Ridgeway received a full 40-minute episode that highlighted his entry into slave catching, the time spent on non-narrative moments could have been better used by fleshing out the stories of amazing characters like Mabel (Sheila Atim), Royal (William Jackson Harper), and Caesar.
As a standalone work of art, Barry Jenkins’ reimagining of The Underground Railroad is ambitious, visually stunning, and thought-provoking. Although unable to relieve itself from the emotional heaviness that’s intrinsically attached to Black slave-era stories, The Underground Railroad moves past a jarring opening episode to take viewers on a Cora’s arduous, yet inspiring journey. So while neither its endless cycle of suffering nor its overindulgent creative decisions make for a truly great series, Amazon’s The Underground Railroad is definitely an unforgettable one.