The Underground Railroad review: Barry Jenkins' cinematic brilliance brings forth a tale on privilege, loss, and freedom

An incisive story on Black suffering, Barry Jenkins' The Underground Railroad is a prized narrative on race and equality.

Shreya Paul May 14, 2021 08:05:25 IST
The Underground Railroad review: Barry Jenkins' cinematic brilliance brings forth a tale on privilege, loss, and freedom

Language: English

"You're not like the rest. The war within your eyes shows itself. You are the Negro of the future. Don't sacrifice that for the sake of the common nigger."

The air hangs heavy and misty with embers of burnt wood; the wide-angle camera pans to acres of yonder plantation lands, with a single subject positioned centre-frame — a charred body of a once-proud Black man, hanging on a stake, lifeless and voiceless.

One Black life, or a thousand — they are all just ‘meaningless’ lives lost within the universe that Barry Jenkins so lovingly creates in the 10-part limited series, The Underground Railroad. I purposely use ‘lovingly,' despite the sheer intensity and macabre that the series unabashedly depicts, because the show reeks of Jenkins’ passion and heart for the subject.

The Moonlight director, when ruminating on whether to adapt Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the screen, said to The Associated Press, “Do people really need to be reminded about the horrors of slavery?” But moments later, he settled on the affirmative. Notwithstanding the mammoth size of the project, Jenkins decided to get on board with it, to mainly “recontextualise how we view my ancestors.”

And thus began the incisive and heartbreaking journey of Cora (played by feisty South African newcomer Thuso Mbedu), a Black slave who makes her journey out of a Georgia plantation, destined to follow her mother Mable’s (Ugandan actor Sheila Atim) footsteps to emancipation.

The Underground Railroad review Barry Jenkins cinematic brilliance brings forth a tale on privilege loss and freedom

Mable, played by Sheila Atim

The Underground Railroad is mostly divided into chapters based on the American states Cora crosses on her journey north. Her fears threaten her chances of survival with the desperate slave-hunter Arnold Ridgeway close on the heels.

With a solid reference point in Whitehead’s work, Jenkins builds on each character arc.

The detailing on each is done to a point where the enormity of the star-cast poses little problem. They seamlessly come in and out of frame, just like a snippet of life, with its multiple encounters and experiences that leave an impact on us.

The series may well be on the abolitionist period in history, but Jenkins, as is his signature style, refuses to make it only about that. He builds a narrative on othering (both self-imposed and external); on morals versus societal norms; on religion and its classist distribution; and most poignantly, on privilege.

The Underground Railroad review Barry Jenkins cinematic brilliance brings forth a tale on privilege loss and freedom

Still from The Underground Railroad

In Jenkins’ world, the people speak through silences. He almost creates cinematic tableaus that could well be placed in history museums on Black slavery. Many a shot see characters directly looking into the lens (though never breaking the fourth wall) amidst a crucial scene. The series creates moments of self awareness that burst out of the frame to directly question the audience, to remind them that their complacency to such abhorrent crimes makes them an equal accomplice to it.

Jenkins’ interest in Black slavery surpasses the obvious narration of ‘right versus wrong.' His point of view includes each problematic layer that functioned like a well-oiled machine to uphold such an intricate social construct for so many years that it stood erect for— without question, without rebellion.

For slavery to thrive in the US, each Black had to believe they were the inferior race, that they deserved to be treated as sub-humans, despite the many instincts that told them otherwise.

Jenkins puts a pin on those moments of vulnerability.

When Ridgeway’s sidekick Homer (Chase W Dillon), a young, precocious Black child, witnesses a white man forcefully trying to rape Cora, he merely looks away in bored disgust, as if to say “just get on with it already.” His apathy for his own kind (just as long as his own hide is safe) speaks to similar such othering during world events of unimaginable atrocities — the Holocaust, apartheid, the Reign of Terror, what have you. The series draws attention to the fact that human horrors go far beyond the realms of morality or ethics, that they force people to survive like animals, living blinkered and delusional lives.

In The Underground Railroad, Jenkins plays with imagery to tell horrific stories. James Laxton’s languid shots linger over the atrocities that white male supremacists callously mete out to their Black counterparts.

Most depictions challenge the viewer into experiencing the unadulterated pain and suffering along with the character undergoing it onscreen. In a particularly jarring scene, Jenkins pans his lens over Jasper (a runaway who Cora befriended during her brief capture). The camera focuses on his face, his cold, lifeless eyes (that speak of thousand unheard stories of anguish), and lastly, his mouth, as it releases a final sigh before the body turns to stone in Tennessee’s harsh winter. As Ridgeway nonchalantly drops Jasper’s body out of the carriage, and journeys on with Cora in the bogie, Jenkins positions his gaze through Cora. The lens captures the dead man’s corpse, gradually receding in the distance, as the carriage moves on with Cora’s petrified stare never shifting from her now-deceased friend’s last remains.

The series almost confesses to being self-indulgent, just so long as it can function as a catalyst to drive the conversation on equality forward. Jenkins’ treatment is such that even though you know you are watching a scene set in the early 1800s, you can almost hear George Floyd’s final raspy breath before it all ends.

The Underground Railroad review Barry Jenkins cinematic brilliance brings forth a tale on privilege loss and freedom

Cora, played by Thuso Mbedu

The timelessness of The Underground Railroad is what makes it a clear classic. Context aside, the disparity in social standings and access to privilege is still a burning issue that pushes throngs to the streets in protest and agony. But the makers are careful never to celebrate the darkness, or even lionize it. The series never makes excuses of the viciousness, just portrays it to the hilt, leaving the judgement up to viewers.

The Underground Railroad is a rare piece of work that comes by seldom. Hence, it ought to be lauded and commended ever so heartily. Jenkins’ story could easily be a representative of people who have been systematically decentred from life’s bounties through brute force and have had the gumption to rise against it, no matter the odds.

Albeit, the series presents hard facts that could be rather difficult to stomach, but never without a smidgeon of hope. Hope that things will most definitely look up, and the silenced will ultimately find their agency. Because in the end, Black Lives will always matter.

The Underground Railroad is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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(All images from Twitter)

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