Barry Jenkins has made quite a name for himself since his film Moonlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture back in 2016. It was definitely a memorable win for him and his beautiful movie. Since then he chose to do a project that reflects the African-American experience, If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the work of James Baldwin. His latest project is The Underground Railroad based on the historical fiction novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead.
Thuso Mbedu plays Cora, a Georgia slave. She’s not really happy with the current situation she’s in on the plantation picking cotton. She has a friend named Caesar, played by Aaron Pierre. Together they hatch a plan to escape the plantation and the thumb of the plantation master’s brother. When tragedy befalls the brother, the other takes control of his land and slaves. The slaves aren’t happy about this turn of events. Cora and Caesar’s plan moves into full effect and they run. Eventually landing in South Carolina through the Underground Railroad. This is not the end of Cora’s story though. It’s just the beginning.
Cora’s journey takes many turns, some good and some bad, but mostly bad. SHE tops in North Carolina with a sympathetic man named Martin, played by Damon Herriman, and his wife to the Underground Railroad. She gets captured by a slave catcher, Ridgeway played by Joel Edgerton, and his little assistant, going through the burning countryside of Tennessee. She escapes once again at the hand of her newest savior and confidant Royal, played by William Jackson Harper, and then arrives in an idyllic community on a farm in Indiana called Valentine.
Suffice to say, Cora’s journey has been fraught with a lot of pain and suffering at the hands of Ridgeway and others, but she has also been embraced as a loved one and family member by Caesar, Martin, Royal, and the Valentine community. Her life hasn’t been easy. Even when she was a child growing up in Georgia. She learned a lot about survival from her mother who protected her, but also taught her how to survive if she ended up on her own. She needed those skills she learned from her mother.
As seen in Jenkins’s past films, he likes to play with the camera angles and how the cinematography plays into the overall feel of the film. In this series, he has a lot to work with in terms of locations and various weather conditions. The burning brush in Tennessee was quite the touch in the middle episodes. It showed the bleak nature of Cora’s situation. The beautiful backdrops of Indiana, South Carolina, and Georgia were a stark contrast to Tennessee. Also, he uses dream sequences to get into the mind of his main character that had very strange camera effects. Jenkins is a master behind the lens of a camera
Even though this tale is one of fiction, it is grounded in reality. All the scenarios that befall Cora in this series are very believable for the period this series takes place in. The authenticity which Jenkins shows is nothing short of brilliant. From the clothes to the carriages to the farms and even the rituals that men and women partake in and the revelry they enjoy at times are all spot on. The characters even get the accents right in various parts of the country the series moves to. This series does a lot correct.
With all great forms of literature, you must have a protagonist, Cora in this case, and an antagonist, Ridgeway in this series. Ridgeway is a flawed man with a damaged past. His past relationship with his father, who he greatly differs from about slavery, is a key aspect of his character. This helps make him an emotionless man who has a dogged way about him. He will stop at nothing to return Cora to her accusers and that’s his mission right or wrong. That makes him a very dangerous man. Edgerton embraces this role thoroughly and becomes the evil we all fear in life.
The Underground Railroad is one of the most authentic-looking and feeling films or shows about this subject matter ever. The comparison is obviously Roots from 1976 and that would be good because they are both very good examples of this genre. I would say 12 Years a Slave is still the best, but The Underground Railroad is a masterpiece in its own right. The acting by all involved will surely garner Emmy nominations and potential wins, the craftsmanship behind and in front of the camera is all first-rate. Jenkins has done it again.
Dan Skip Allen