- Amazon's latest limited series is "The Underground Railroad."
- The show was adapted from Colson Whitehead's award-winning novel by Barry Jenkins.
- The show is a sprawling and thoughtful epic about slavery and its afterlives.
It's been quite the year of television.
This week, Amazon Studios will debut its second limited TV series helmed by a best picture-winning director in less than six months. The first was "Small Axe," by Steve McQueen, and now "The Underground Railroad" — the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead — has been masterfully transferred to the screen by "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins.
The ten-part drama tells the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman born into slavery on a plantation in Georgia. Unable to endure any more of the brutal tyranny of the plantation owner, Terrance Randall (Benjamin Walker), she runs away.
Cora begins the journey with her companion Caesar (Aaron Pierce), and together they discover the underground railroad, which, in this telling, has been transformed into a literal railroad operated beneath the Unites States and conducted by free Black men and women. The only cost to ride the railroad is to recount your story to freedom in a ledger.
The story facilitates a harrowing tour of the pre-Civil War American South. And together with his brilliant frequent collaborators Nicholas Britell (composer) and James Laxton (cinematographer), Jenkins crafts a sprawling and thoughtful epic about slavery and its afterlives.
Why you should care: "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins is at the helm
During a recent interview with Sight and Sound, Colson Whitehead revealed that he entrusted Barry Jenkins with adapting his award-winning novel just before the wide release of "Moonlight." Shortly after, Jenkins became one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood, but at the time, he had made only one feature, the low-budget indie "Medicine for Melancholy."
The most persuasive factor, Whitehead said, was that when he asked Jenkins what previous films on slavery had inspired him to adapt the novel, he responded: "Slave movies? No, I was thinking 'There Will Be Blood' and 'The Master' by Paul Thomas Anderson."
In many ways, "The Underground Railroad" does feel like Jenkins' "There Will Be Blood." This is his fourth feature. His last film, "If Beale Street Could Talk" was a beautifully realized piece of work that was underseen and undervalued, just as Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love," which preceded "There Will Be Blood," was.
Some may consider this comparison to be a thematic and stylistic departure for Jenkins, whose previous work was lauded for its tightly controlled, impressionistic bent. And, in part, it is. With "The Underground Railroad," Jenkins is able to do away with any budget constraints to employ the same freewheeling scale and ambition that has shaped all of Paul Thomas Anderson's work.
But the most identifiable connection between the two directors actually has very little to do with style. Over the course of his career, Anderson has continually shown the ability to make any story, no matter how wacky or wild, connect deeply with audiences. In his previous two features, Jenkins showed signs that he possesses similar powers. Here he confidently wields his wand.
What's hot: "The Underground Railroad" tells a most unique story of slavery
Over the last few years, there has been a considerable amount written about the fatigue audiences — specifically Black audiences — have felt with films and TV shows that depict slavery. In the 21st century, there have been two defining big-screen works on the subject: Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning "12 Years a Slave" and Jordan Peele's "Get Out."
McQueen's film provides an honest and uncompromising look at life on the plantation. And Peele's film translates how those dynamics have dissolved into the fabric of contemporary US society. All other depictions have paled in comparison, and mostly because of their reliance on a ridiculous amount of gratuitous violence. Some recent poor examples include 2020's "Antebellum" starring Janelle Monáe and Lena Waithe's horror anthology series "Them," another Amazon limited series.
The logic behind those poor attempts is quite clear: the emotions of a person are engaged far easier than their intelligence. These filmmakers attempt to shock audiences into witnessing the horrors of the plantation. Thankfully, no such shock tactics are found here. Jenkins shows far too much respect for his audience. And he is also guided by the magic of Whitehead's thoughtful novel.
The series, like the novel, takes a slightly different aim from anything we have seen before. The story's core is wrapped around the journey of its main character, Cora. We stay with her throughout. Her troubles are our troubles. Her fears are our fears. But neither Jenkins nor Whitehead is interested in torturing Cora. This is not a story about endurance. And notably, there is also no savior. Instead, through the violence and subjugation, Jenkins honors the ways in which Cora, and by extension the audience watching, has been able to build community.
In a sort of preface to the series that was included in the press notes given to critics, Jenkins said that as a child, when his school teacher first said the words "underground railroad," in his mind, he saw images of "black folks building and working and thriving on vessels of their own creation far beneath the ground." And this is one of the many reasons Jenkins was best placed to adapt Whitehead's novel, which is constructed on the power of imagination but also the beauty of resolve and resilience.
Bottom Line: "The Underground Railroad" is a great TV show by a great filmmaker
There are likely to be discussions about whether "The Underground Railroad," which begins streaming on Amazon Friday, is formally a TV show or an extended film project. And to this I would say: it is much easier to discern the difference between the two if you think of them as autonomous art forms not identified by their presentation but by the specific rhythms and the beats of their story construction.
In this vein, "The Underground Railroad" is a television series. A great television series created by a great filmmaker. And one of the best parts of the series is the way in which it eloquently connects the fictional world of Cora to the contemporary world. Today, there is a lot of work by great writers like Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe that dissect this legacy. But few, if any, on-screen works have explored the subject with the clarity of "The Underground Railroad."
As one character says in the second to last episode, dialogue mostly lifted from Whitehead's novel: "Here's one delusion: that we can escape Slavery. We can't. Its scars will never fade." And as the credits roll on the last episode in the series, soundtracked by the sounds of Aretha Franklin, much like the concluding act of "Moonlight," you will be in tears.
But just like the ending of "Moonlight," these will not be tears of total sadness. Instead, you will feel a sense of pride in how far we have come and how far we can go — together.