mon 20/05/2024

The Underground Railroad, Amazon Prime review - a horrifying ride through America's heart of darkness | reviews, news & interviews

The Underground Railroad, Amazon Prime review - a horrifying ride through America's heart of darkness

The Underground Railroad, Amazon Prime review - a horrifying ride through America's heart of darkness

Barry Jenkins's adaptation of Colson Whitehead's novel hits you with shock and awe

Bounty hunter: Joel Edgerton as Arnold Ridgeway, with Chase Dillon as Homer

Many a director might have considered that televising Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was impossible, but Barry Jenkins, Oscar-winning director of Moonlight, has proved it can be done.

His 10-part series for Amazon Prime is a remarkable achievement in its authorial depth and cinematic scope. The only cloud on its undoubtedly award-winning horizon is the fact that large chunks of it are almost too horrific to watch. The cast found some of the material so disturbing that Jenkins had a mental health counsellor on set.

Traumatised responses were probably inevitable, given that the chosen territory is the history of slavery, and the way it’s inextricably knotted around the entrails of the USA. The Underground Railroad was the term used to describe the system of routes, hideouts and sympathisers who helped runaway slaves escape to Canada or Mexico or even Europe, but Whitehead turned it into a physical railway of tracks and locomotives, running beneath the southern states. It’s a risky metaphorical ploy which lends itself more naturally to the written word than the explicitness of film, but Jenkins has made it work by blending the mythic railroad into a world of symbols and haunting imagery.

His narratives of individual characters and events seem to exist in a sort of dream-time, where the present reality is so unspeakable that the prospect of the Great Beyond is all that’s left to hold on to. Characters appear in striking, beautifully composed tableaux, perhaps standing in a cotton field, haunting the camera with their thousand-yard stares. In the story’s fifth chapter, “Tennessee – Exodus”, the recaptured slave Jasper escapes his captivity and finds death by sheer willpower. “I’m free, nobody can touch me,” he tells fellow-prisoner Cora (Thuso Mbedu, pictured above), through whose eyes we see most of the story.

Fletcher, the white man who helps Cora and her friend Caesar to board the railway after they’ve escaped from the Randall plantation in Georgia, tells them that on the journey “you’ll see the true face of America”, and it’s a surreal and ghastly spectacle. It was difficult to imagine that anywhere could be worse than the Randall plantation where the story begins, with the sadistic Terrance Randall (Benjamin Walker), who routinely beats his slaves to death, never at a loss for some barbaric new method of killing. In one scene, while Randall and his fancy white friends eat lunch on the lawn, a recaptured slave is strung up, has lumps hacked out of him by a ferocious horse-whipping, then is burned alive while the diners watch insouciantly. Later on in the story, Cora learns that her friend Lovey was hung up by a spike through the ribs and took two days to die. It feels like an overload of gratuitous horror, but history records real-life events just as bad or worse.

On her journey, Cora finds that the depravity can take insidious forms. In the South Carolina town of Griffin, she and Caesar (Aaron Pierre, pictured below) are enrolled in a seemingly enlightened and emancipated community, where they walk the streets as smartly-dressed free citizens and are given jobs and healthcare. But though the whites who run the place patronise them with slogans about “the practical betterment of Negro life”, they’re trapped in a Gilead-like dystopia, where blacks are controlled by eugenics and forced sterilisation.

Cora escapes to North Carolina, only to find it’s like a prototype Third Reich where black people are not tolerated and are ritually murdered, along with any white sympathisers. The road into town has been dubbed the “Freedom Trail”, and is lined with black bodies hanging from the trees. With help from Martin, a white abolitionist in constant fear for his own safety, the terrorised Cora ends up hidden in an attic, like Anne Frank.

Stalking the landscape is the Reaper-like figure of Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a professional slave-catcher who hunts down runaways with remorseless cruelty. He has a special animus against Cora, because her mother Mabel was the only slave who ever escaped his clutches. He gets a back-story episode in which we see how he turned against the “Great Spirit” espoused by his parents (his father, played by Peter Mullan, was a liberal-minded blacksmith who employed freed slaves), instead choosing to exploit the potential of cash-for-humans. Mysteriously, he’s partnered by Homer (Chase Dillon), an 11-year-old slave boy he bought for $5 and then liberated. Cora’s progress as Ridgeway’s prisoner, as he drags her through a Tennessee landscape scorched by fire and littered with the corpses of homesteaders killed by yellow fever, is yet another manifestation of hell.

The Underground Railroad overwhelms you with shock and awe, and decisively narrows the gap between what cinema and television can achieve. Dive in, if you’re feeling strong enough.

It decisively narrows the gap between what cinema and television can achieve


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Up to episode 9 - very enjoyable but disturbing show. Very graphic in places but the characters and scenery are very good, sad story told through Cora - what a hard life she had as well as slavery in general must have been a terrible time to live through. Two small negatives I have are: 1: hard to hear all the dialogue sometimes - mumble 2: Some scenes are very dark graphically cant see what is happening

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