And so, at the very point when cinemas in much of the world are reopen — or are about to — one of the most gifted filmmakers at work today wants to keep you fixed on the small screen.
The irony would not be lost on the film-maker in question, writer-director Barry Jenkins. His love of movies rang from every second of Moonlight, the luminous coming-of-age that made his name and swept the 2017 Oscars. That summer, Colson Whitehead published his feted novel The Underground Railroad (and matched Jenkins’ Oscar with a Pulitzer.) For much of the half decade since, Jenkins has been at work on an adaptation, now released in 10 parts on Amazon.
Whitehead’s novel could only have been a TV series. It comes loaded with too much storytelling for a single movie, a cast of vivid characters led by an indelible heroine: Cora, a teenage slave on a Georgia plantation in the antebellum South (superbly played by South African actor Thuso Mbedu).
The title references the network of safe houses that helped slaves escape to free states and Canada in the first half of the 19th century. But here the railroad is made daringly literal. So begins Jenkins’ first challenge. Marrying magic realism and historical trauma is one task left to a reader’s imagination, where all things are possible. Giving it physical substance is riskier.
Such is the banner achievement of the first episode. Ahead of surreal moments to come, Jenkins makes fresh the outrage of slavery, scenes of violence at once monstrous and dramatically vital. The opener is the springboard for Cora’s odyssey. It also asks the series’ essential question: a set of secret tracks beneath America or this horror above ground — which one is beyond belief?
Jenkins makes his Railroad a marvel unto itself. Whitehead’s novel is so richly plotted that it would be easy to let it keep doing the work, to simply point the camera at Cora and the haunting characters fanned around her, among them Ahab-ish slavecatcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton). Equally, many high-end film directors making series for streaming platforms have found their personalities crushed by the sheer weight of screen time. Here, for all the scale of the project, we are on Jenkins’ clock — and in his world.
Most episodes hover around the one-hour mark, but some are near movie length and others radically shorter; one plays for just 19 minutes. All are exactly as long or short as they need to be. Visually too, the series is dynamite, never less than what was once termed cinematic. (Wise viewers will switch the lights off.) The result mirrors the singular spirit of its heroine. If Cora is an envoy from a coming future, the project has a trace of science fiction. Time bends again: 19th-century characters talk of skyscrapers; Jenkins soundtracks the hidden train out of Georgia with Atlanta hip-hop royalty Outkast.
That Cora escapes is scarcely a spoiler. But escape in the Underground Railroad — into a counterfactual honeycomb of nearby states — proves fraught and flawed. Elsewhere in this looking-glass America, slavery endures only as a museum exhibit, an airy symbol of progress. But the museum demands that former slaves relive their slavery in mocked-up cotton fields, overseen by loudly liberal white curators. For Jenkins, it feels like a nerveless moment of self-reflection on addressing slavery as a black storyteller.
In Moonlight, he made a signature of close-ups of his character’s faces, alive enough to fill the biggest screen. Those close-ups feature here as well, but so do intricate scenes of multiple extras that Jenkins knows may end up watched on a laptop. He still invests them with careful, hand-painted detail. Such is the series in essence: both addictive and profound, a master director tailoring his vision to the age of content watched on phones and expanding into the epic. Call The Underground Railroad television, call it film, or call it something else entirely. Whatever name you give the art these days, this is the state of it.
On Amazon Prime Video from May 14
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