The story follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu) as she and a protective fellow slave named Caesar (Aaron Pierre) escape from a Georgia plantation with a vindictive slave catcher on their heels. The railroad facilitates a grim tour of the American South, with each stop reinforcing — in its own terrifying way — the supremacist delusion at the heart of the nation’s darkest legacy.
The Amazon Prime series, which begins streaming Friday, arrives amid increasing discourse around shows and films that center on Black pain. Some viewers will understandably approach “The Underground Railroad” with trepidation: Jenkins presents the horrors of slavery in unflinching and relentless detail. I’ve seen “Roots” (both the original and the 2016 remake), “12 Years a Slave," and WGN’s excellent but short-lived thriller “Underground,” but nothing comes close to the brutal violence depicted in “The Underground Railroad.” I used the pause button a lot — both to collect and to brace myself.
Cora and Caesar slip away from the Randall plantation following a barbaric show of violence against another enslaved person who dared to run. Cora experiences loss after loss as she attempts to make her way to freedom, and her grief is compounded by the loss of her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), who escaped from the plantation when Cora was a child.
The trauma of slavery runs like a current through the series, but pain is not the totality of Cora’s story — even in her darkest moments. The show is singular in the way it depicts the strength and perseverance of Black people, who have endured generations of abuse in a country built on paradoxical notions of freedom.
With the help of a free man named Royal (William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place” fame), Cora eventually lands in Indiana, where she becomes part of a thriving Black community. Valentine Farm is another world for Cora, a place where children are allowed to be children, and work on the farm’s vineyard is a collective effort that reaps rewards for everyone who lives there. But there is tension here, too, between some of the formerly enslaved Black people who founded the farm community and Cora, who is considered a fugitive in the eyes of the law. The debate spawns dueling sermons from two of Valentine’s founders about the future of Black people in America. With the heartland as a backdrop, the series takes on a wistfully patriotic tone.
Jenkins and his collaborators work from a palette as rich as those the director, who helms all 10 episodes, used in “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” One episode begins with lush images of celebration and joy and Black love (Cora and Royal share a particularly tender scene). Jenkins’s signature shot, in which characters direct a lingering gaze at the camera, is at its most powerful in these scenes.
Like its source material, “The Underground Railroad” is punctuated with surreal elements — namely the train that gives Cora hope. Composer Nicholas Britell’s haunting and at turns whimsical score brilliantly incorporates the urgent and foreboding horn of a locomotive. But the series is most chilling in its exploration of the very real violence and cruelty that defined the era for Black Americans (and, more subtly, the ways it reverberates today).
Even after she finds refuge out West, Cora still fears Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), the slave catcher intent on finding her. He’s a prominent character but, rest assured, there are no White saviors here. “The Underground Railroad” explores the insecurities and personal failures that led Ridgeway to his bloodthirsty profession, but it does not make excuses for his viciousness.
Nor does it romanticize the warped affection he holds for Homer (Chase W. Dillon in a standout role), a young Black boy who is technically free but serves as the slave catcher’s constant companion. One heartbreaking scene highlights Homer’s lost innocence, as the child slides a sleeping Ridgeway’s gun out of its holster and whispers pew pew as he holds the weapon, playing like the child he is for just a few precious minutes.
As recently reported by the New York Times, Jenkins briefly considered abandoning “The Underground Railroad,” a project that was met with some skepticism and the recurring question of whether Hollywood needs more stories about slavery. The director told the paper that he decided to move forward after Amazon commissioned a focus group that asked Black Atlanta residents if Whitehead’s novel should be adapted for the screen. According to Jenkins, a mere 10 percent of respondents said that it shouldn’t.
“The other 90 percent were like, ‘Tell it, but you have to show everything. It needs to be hard. It needs to be brutal,'" Jenkins told the Times.
It certainly is. Throughout the week I spent watching “The Underground Railroad,” I found myself drawn to the amateur genealogical research I’ve done on my own family, which is descended in part from African American slaves. One byproduct of slavery’s cruel design is that records for these ancestors are hard to come by — they were considered property, after all.
Still, some of my relatives’ stories have made their way to me: the great-great-great-grandmother who found her way back to her family in Virginia, years after being sold to a plantation owner in Mississippi; the male relatives in her line who defiantly changed their surnames so their children wouldn’t bear the name of a man who owned people for profit.
In some ways, this made “The Underground Railroad” all the more difficult to watch. Pain is abundant, and the series beckons us to grieve. Take your time, but don’t look away. There’s much more to Cora’s story.
The Underground Railroad (10 episodes) available for streaming Friday on Amazon Prime. (Disclosure: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)