Oscar winner reimagines slavery in ‘The Underground Railroad’

Thuso Mbedu plays Cora, a runaway slave, in “The Underground Railroad.”

The brutal reality of slavery, the fantastical storytelling of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the cinematic poetry of an Oscar-winning director meet in Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad.”

Based on Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name, the limited series, which premiered on May 14, imagines a subterranean locomotive system that travels through a labyrinth of tunnels under the Southern United States, connecting runaway slaves to a network of abolitionists and safe houses on the way to freedom.

The 10-episode drama follows enslaved teenager Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and young man Caesar (Aaron Pierre) as they flee a cruel Georgia plantation only to discover that “free” white America has found plenty of creative ways outside of slavery to demonize, oppress and imprison Black folks. Cora and Caesar stumble into a fresh hell with each new “chapter” in the tale, many named for the states in which they’re set.

When they escape Georgia and emerge from the Underground Railroad in South Carolina, it’s a seemingly progressive place devoted to helping the freed with various educational and social programs. But wait, why are there no Black children anywhere? A ghoulish conspiracy unfurls. When Cora flees to North Carolina, a highly religious state where slavery is illegal, she discovers that Black people are too. Time to flee again.

These graceful, disquieting and tense episodes incorporate real and fictional events, illustrating that systemic racism is as absurd as it is pervasive —and as American as apple pie. And because it’s the antebellum South, that means there’s plenty of vicious racial violence depicted in the series, situating “The Underground Railroad” within a larger conversation about the proliferation of graphic on-screen violence against Black characters in projects such as Amazon’s “Them” and Netflix’s Oscar-winning short “Two Distant Strangers.”

Of course, whitewashing the horrors of slavery won’t do, either, and director Barry Jenkins doesn’t try to skirt the wickedness. The “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” director said in an interview with NPR that there were times when he wept on set while re-creating slavery ‘s ruthlessness. That empathy and closeness radiates from the screen. The people being hurt and killed here aren’t just fictional figures; they are ancestors. We can sit with their pain because he is invested in them. Because, through the series, we are invested in them.

‘Through the Black gaze’

The experiences of both freedom and slavery are filtered through the Black gaze in “The Underground Railroad.” When a captured slave is dragged back to the plantation and tortured, the last images we see of him alive are through his eyes, a hazy scene of white men celebrating as he burns.

His body is desecrated, but it’s the plantation owners who are the hideous monsters. Black people control the narrative here, and Jenkins plays with that juxtaposition throughout: the powerless in society are truly the most potent in the series.

The lead performances from relative newcomers Mbedu and Pierre are transporting. They are two fish out of water, battered by rough seas, trying not to get caught. It’s terrifying, exhilarating and, at times, redeeming. On their tails are Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a bounty hunter of runaway slaves, and his right-hand kid, Homer (the fantastic Chase W. Dillon). The cast also includes “The Good Place” star William Jackson Harper as Royal, a freeborn Black man Cora encounters on her journey.

Jenkins is renowned for his nuance, subtlety and meditative silences, and those qualities transfer to television, with each episode of the series resembling a short film — beautiful cinematography, carefully considered locations, meticulous sets and wardrobe.

And thanks to Jenkins’ steady hand, his knack for keying in on his characters’ humanity no matter their circumstances, the combination of harsh reality and wild fantasy that could have easily derailed this train — reminiscent of “Watchmen,” which asked us to revisit the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 — stays firmly, often unforgettably, on track.

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