'The Underground Railroad' Review

Moonlight's Barry Jenkins adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel

This is America.

The Underground Railroad is a new limited series based on the Pulitzer Prize winning Colson Whitehead novel. This isn’t the Underground Railroad you’ve read about before. The series imagines the railroad as a figurative railroad where passengers board trains in an attempt to escape the chains of slavery.

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Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman among many enslaved on a Georgia plantation, lives in a state of fear. Her people work the cotton fields, are bred like cattle, and feel the wrath of the whip should they ever deviate from their master’s wishes. Cora’s story is not unlike what we’ve seen in other plantation stories such as Steve McQueen’s Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave, but where that protagonist survived the system designed to destroy him, Cora must escape to survive.

Cora’s escape from the plantation would be impossible without help. She’s told of the great Underground Railroad from an educated slave named Caesar (Aaron Pierre). He believes they’ll be able to escape because the only slave that has ever escaped successfully was Cora’s mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim). Cora is supposed to be Caesar’s good luck charm. After a dangerous journey, they make their first stop in South Carolina. It seems like the perfect place for Caesar and Cora to settle, but there is something sinister going on. It will be only the first of many stops for Cora on her journey for freedom.

One person that will hunt Cora is slave hunter Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton). He’s determined to capture Cora and return her to the plantation. His infatuation with Cora extends further than her being just another runaway. The only time he’s failed to return a slave is Cora’s mother, Mabel. Mabel’s escape weighs heavily not only on Ridgeway, but also on Cora. How could her mother leave her behind to suffer that fate on the plantation?

There are some changes that director Barry Jenkins has made to the source material that make it stronger. The presence of Ridgeway looms large over the story and his motivations are made clearer. While the novel dedicates one chapter to Ridgeway’s backstory, Jenkins dedicates an entire episode to show the background of the vile slave hunter. Underground Railroad doesn’t need an antagonist to push the story forward, there are enough atrocities being committed. But Ridgeway brings a heightened anxiety to the entire show, that even when Cora might be comfortable in a new location, there is always the chance that he’ll be there. No matter where Cora goes, she’ll never be free. There are more changes, some added characters for instance, but you’ll have to discover them yourself.

Barry Jenkins’ adaptation is a great success. The series was a massive endeavor as he directed all ten episodes of the series and co-wrote several of them. He has taken the heart and soul of Whitehead’s novel and improved upon it in multiple ways.

The Underground Railroad has fantasy elements like an entire railway system, but what isn’t a fantasy, is the racism depicted within those frames. It’s not always pleasant, but it’s an accurate depiction of our history. Cora is always searching for the great American dream of freedom. Throughout the course of the series, she’ll eventually come to terms with what freedom means for her. Jenkins’ adaptation is an essential series that asks what freedom ultimately looks like. [A]

The 10-episode Underground Railroad will premiere on Amazon Prime May 14th.

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