Plot: From Academy Award® winner Barry Jenkins and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad chronicles Cora Randall’s desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. After escaping a Georgia plantation for the rumored Underground Railroad, Cora discovers no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.
Review: Shortly after Moonlight won Best Picture honors and earned director Barry Jenkins an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Amazon Studios greenlit an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad. The acclaimed novel won prestigious awards and was a bestseller and there is little doubt that Jenkin’s breathtaking limited series will garner similar acclaim. Spread over ten episodes, The Underground Railroad is a stark and haunting tale that reimagines the titular network of escape routes for slaves during the Civil War as an actual railroad built under the plantations and landscape of the United States. Despite that alternate history twist to the tale, The Underground Railroad is one of the most brutally honest depictions of slavery put to screen coupled with Barry Jenkins’ eye that makes this horror story into a beautiful tale of survival and perseverance.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, The Underground Railroad follows Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu) as she escapes from Georgia alongside Caesar (Aaron Pierre). Using the titular railroad, the pair make their way to freedom, only each of the stops on their odyssey shift from idyllic to nightmarish. Constantly looking over her shoulder for the tenacious slave-hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), Cora witnesses and endures gut-wrenching racism ranging from verbal and physical abuse to psychological trauma unlike anything put to screen in similar depictions of the Antebellum South. Spread over ten episodes, this story is the definition of epic while also ranking as one of the most challenging series in recent memory. This is a hard story to watch unfold, but a vital one that no viewer will easily forget.
While Colson Whitehead’s novel ran less than 400 pages, Barry Jenkins does not waste a second of screen time trimming this story. By making this a limited series rather than a feature film, Jenkins and his co-writers do not squander a single character, scene, or subplot. In fact, the series enhances the novel by adding visuals that are both lyrical and beautiful while others that are more terrifying than any contemporary horror movie. One early scene depicts a death from the perspective of the victim and haunts me long after having watched the series. There is at least one such scene in every single episode, sometimes multiple, that made my stomach clench in anticipation. Sometimes, Jenkins pulls back and shows mercy and in other scenes, we are forced to endure to the very end.
The lead performances from Thuso Mbedu and Joel Edgerton are career-defining performances. Mbedu, who is making her North American acting debut, wowed me as Cora. Playing such a tortured character would be an endurance test for even the most seasoned actor but Mbedu brings strength to her performance that will most assuredly garner her substantial roles in the future. On the flip side, Joel Edgerton has proven time and again to be a capable character as both protagonists and villains. As the series progressed, I often wondered whether there was underlying sympathy in Ridgeway but a flashback episode that sheds light on how he became a slave hunter will definitely make you feel certain about the type of man he is. The dynamic between Mbedu and Edgerton is a highlight of this series and one that won’t be easily forgotten.
The supporting cast here is packed with recognizable actors including Damon Herriman (Justified), William Jackson Harper (The Good Place), Lily Rabe (American Horror Story), Fred Hechinger (News of the World), Peter Mullan (Ozark, Westworld), Will Poulter (Midsommar), Benjamin Walker (In the Heart of the Sea), Megan Boone (The Blacklist) and many more. The talent here is astounding and Barry Jenkins puts the entire cast through the wringer. The production values and attention to detail are so great that you will not once think of this as a TV show but a ten-hour movie. Not a single moment is wasted as the series moves from episode to episode, each clocking in at a full hour. From the stark opening title cards to the anachronistic music playing over the closing credits, every decision here is intentional and perfectly suited to the material.
I wish I could go more into the plot of this series, but revealing anything (if you have not read the novel) would be a disservice to you watching this story unfold. The Underground Railroad could easily become a definitive dramatization of the bruise on American history that is slavery and rightfully so. Barry Jenkins portrays both sides of the divide eloquently while firmly displaying the evil that men did to one another in the name of supremacy. I almost feel bad saying this, but this is such an absolutely accomplished visual work that I feel bad that the beauty of The Underground Railroad is tied intrinsically to the horror of the story. You are unlikely to see anything else this year that will stay with you like how this series stayed with me. The Underground Railroad is an absolute masterpiece.
The Underground Railroad premieres on May 14th on Amazon Prime Video.