For me, UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (2021, streaming on Amazon Prime) is nothing short of a monumental achievement.
Based on the excellent novel by Colson Whitehead, RAILROAD chronicles the travels of Cora, a field slave on an antebellum Georgia plantation, as she escapes and tries to find a place where she can finally be safe. Her means of escape is the Underground Railroad, though this is where the story very quickly diverges from reality into magical realism. While the real Underground Railroad was a network of people who helped slaves escape to the North, in this story, it is an actual physical railroad, seemingly created by a people’s hopes and aspirations.
Cora’s adventures take her through the South to the North, with each state similarly diverging from history to take a different approach to race relations. One state crushes Africans in brutal slavery, another enacts a seemingly beneficial but patronizing type of control, and so on. Along the way, Whitehead examines the impact of slavery on a nation, how it leaves scars that last long after the lash stops, and how it also twists and scars people and a nation that do the enslaving.
In short, it’s a great story, powerful but without seeming to lecture or scold, leaving us to think and feel for ourselves as viewers. And what a loving, artistic, and powerful adaptation Barry Jenkins pulls from it. From the cinematography to the sound design, everything about the show sings with craftsmanship. The acting is terrific across the board. The portrayal of the slave catcher Ridgeway gives us one of the best villains I’ve ever seen on television, a man tormented and twisted by his spiritual conscience but given to dark impulses and believing in a natural order in which his race is on top and therefore can do what it wants. The camera takes its time and lingers on faces to bring the interior landscape of the characters quietly but richly into view. Jenkins had a free hand with this creation, resulting in episodes ranging from around 20 minutes up to 77 minutes, whatever the “chapter” needed.
So yeah, I loved UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and highly recommend it as a truly loving, powerful piece of art.