The Underground Railroad (2021)

Barry Jenkins | 10 episodes (20 min – 1hr 17min)

It is a worthy conversation to have regarding where the line between movies and television sits, but when it comes to film directors bringing their unique voices to a miniseries it is hard to argue that the art they create is anything but cinema. As for The Underground Railroad, it is tough to imagine any serious discussion of Barry Jenkins’ greatest artistic accomplishments that doesn’t touch on this 10-hour epic. 
On one hand, the bleakness of the antebellum South is horrifyingly realised in the executions, massacres, and torture scenes ridden all throughout this series. But in Jenkins’ re-invention of the “underground railroad”, which was actually a network of secret routes and safe houses to help African Americans escape slavery, he injects a dose of magical realism into the setting. Rather than undercutting the authenticity of the Black struggle, the historical revisionism of the railroad manifests as a retro-futuristic gift of modern-day resources to those who worked in secret to free slaves. The curated selection of contemporary pop and hip-hop songs which close out each episode emphasise these anachronisms, further drawing the connection between the past and present of America’s Black innovators and artists.

Harsh, desolate landscapes. Jenkins has created powerful character drama before, but nothing as sprawling as this.

Where so many miniseries fall into the trap of stretching out a feature-length narrative into a multi-hour marathon, Cora’s escape from Joel Edgerton’s black-clad, drawling slave-catcher, Ridgeway, takes on appropriately epic proportions that could only ever be recounted in a project of this size. There are a couple of episodes which sag in their middle acts as they hit similar plot beats a few too many times, but these are minor given the ten hours of pure cinematic ambition and storytelling. In fact, certain episodes which divert from the main narrative and delve into the backgrounds of supporting characters often end up being among the strongest. Rather than feeling like interruptions, these allow us insight into Jenkins’ world beyond Cora’s immediate point-of-view, giving depth to the lives and experiences of several supporting players. 
One notable flashback episode strives to understand how Ridgeway became the rotten, empty man he is today, and in a remarkable subversion we come to realise that his own corruption was not born of cruel parents or a difficult childhood, but of his own inherent weakness. His father employs freedmen on his farm and preaches about the “Great Spirit”, which he believes holds the universe together. Where Ridgeway fails to understand the concept, Mack, a young African-American boy, becomes invested in keeping it alive through a small, lit match. Even when Ridgeway’s envy and cruelty sends Mack to the bottom of a well, that flame still burns strong, lighting up the darkness with its tiny, warm glow. 
Evoking images of the railroad in in its gold-and-black colour palette, this shot looking down into the well represents a mere microcosm of the underground network stretching across the southern states – a system of people who, like Mack, believe in some version of the “Great Spirit”, shining brightly even in the most smothering shadows. Jenkins has previously proven his flair for lighting in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, but his warm illumination of the trains, tunnels, and lamps in the underground settings are entirely unique in his oeuvre, seeming to exist in a fantastical alternate world separated from the brutal reality above.

The warm, golden lighting of the railroad lends a tone of magical realism to this setting, offering a reprieve from the bleak horrors of the surface.

Jenkins effectively plays right into the surrealism of this imagery, at his most direct plaguing Cora’s sleep with uneasy dreams of her deceased mother and a flourishing underground station, and in quieter, subtler moments, cutting away to portraits of supporting and minor characters standing in open plantations, houses, and stations, staring down the lens of the camera. He calls this motif the “gaze”, and in these Dreyer-like tableaux we are given the chance to look right into their open, honest eyes, the fourth wall entirely non-existent. These aren’t quite flashbacks, but rather memories of people removed from time, acknowledging the presence of an audience looking back at their stories. While they remain motionless, Jenkins’ camera is constantly tracking in, out, and around his subjects, restlessly intrigued by their silent expressions. 

The “gaze”, as Jenkins calls it. It is a haunting visual motif, inviting but also implicating, evoking a connection to those who lie just outside the periphery of this narrative’s boundary.

This dynamic camerawork doesn’t draw attention to itself in many insanely long takes, but Jenkins frequently makes the choice to move through scenes without cutting. In quiet moments, he will drift from face to face, underscoring the austere tension between characters. His framing of close-ups in intimate scenes is like so few others of his generation, at times peering right into the souls of characters with front-on angles, and at other times letting them peer right into ours. In more epic sequences the camera will rise off the ground in unbelievable crane shots, capturing the devastating scope of a village on fire, or a blooming vineyard stretching across acres of land. Wherever it moves, Jenkins’ powerful imagery is sure to be present, often sharply pinpointing a specific subject in shallow focus while everything else melds into soft, painterly backgrounds.

Few directors have been able to capture close-ups like Jenkins. A perfect combination of framing, shallow focus, lighting, and background scenery.

Despite its aesthetic beauty The Underground Railroad is far more confronting than Jenkins’ previous works, not just in its depiction of a grim era fuelled by foul beliefs, but in its sharp indictments of white folk whose “helpful” attitudes mask insidious intentions. Cora moves from town to town across southern America, each one governed by its own set of rules regarding the rights of African-American people, and each one thus posing a different, unique danger. In a South Carolinian city, freedmen are encouraged to “perform” their persecution as education for white people. In North Carolina, a cult-like village executes any person of colour who sets foot within its borders. Even an all-Black community which abides by self-determinist politics relies on the protection of a white judge living in the next town over. You can’t blame Cora for wondering whether there really is such thing as a safe space in this world. The only times we truly believe she is ever free from harm is when she is in the dark, sunken tunnels of the railroad. 

The camera moves smoothly from the ground into this overhead shot of a burning village.

It wouldn’t be right to discuss The Underground Railroad and ignore the consistently excellent work of Nicholas Brittell, whose collaborations with Barry Jenkins have always brought out his most mature, affecting scores. His melodies here are as tenderly moving as ever, but the dominant motif of the series is a descending sequence of four notes, often rendered with intense tremolos on string instruments. It is usually tied directly to the railroad, musically painting out a descent into the unknown, though its versatility allows for lighter renditions to reveal its more fantastical side, offering an escape from the horrors of the surface. 
And indeed, the railroad itself is a complex concept to fully wrap one’s head around. At times it seems to be a perfect, dreamlike utopia, existing completely separate to the white people above. At other times it is lonely and dark, and the only way through it is by a handcar that must be manually operated. Barry Jenkins’ vision of a world where a phenomenon such as this needs to exist is chilling, but even at the lowest points of Cora’s journey, there remains the hope that an opening into the underground network is near enough for her to reach safety again. This metaphor for supportive Black communities stands strong all throughout The Underground Railroad, and with this as his central tenet Jenkins crafts an immense, era-defining cinematic epic.

The Underground Railroad is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.


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