Review of The Underground Railroad, Chapter 1: Georgia

Cora looks at camera

When entertainment headlines announced that Colson Whitehead's award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, would be adapted to a television series on Amazon Prime, the world groaned, wondering if we needed yet another slave narrative. Yet, a seed of hope was planted -- the series would be directed by Barry Jenkins, beloved directors of films like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, noted for their authentic, rich and empowering stories. 

The series now streams on Amazon Prime Video, broken into ten chapters. This lush and lyrical alternate history imagines an antebellum South just as horrendous as the one of history books. One key difference: in this world, the Underground Railroad the runaway enslaved people escape with is a literal railroad, a subterranean network of underground rails that connect the South to the North, where freedom supposedly awaits.

Young Cora (Thuso Mbedu) lives as an outcast on the Georgia plantation run by James Randall (Justice Leak). A slight and delicate looking girl, Cora is shunned by the other slaves for reasons not fully shared in this episode. We know her mother left her at a young age and the other slaves view her with suspicion and fear. She feels more comfortable hanging out with the blind elder on the porch than to risk mingling with the other young folks dancing and making merry. As expected, the treatment of slaves on the plantation is unkind, with the next beating right around the corner at all times. But things get much worse when James dies, leaving the plantation in his brother, Terrance Randall's (Benjamin Walker) hands. Terrance is more sadistic, plus he plans to oversee all of the breeding activities of the slaves (sex is arranged to make strong and hearty slaves).

Cora and Caesar look at one another
[L-R] Thuso Mbedu as CORA, Aaron Pierre as CAESAR in THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Cora dares to imagine leaving when Caesar (Aaron Pierre), a fellow enslaved man with soulful eyes who can read, asks her to run away with him. Cora initially rejects his suggestion, but as conditions on the plantation grow worse, she reconsiders and chooses to take the plunge. The rest of the episode captures the pair's initial departure from the plantation and all that occurs before they get to the first railroad station, manned by Fletcher (Sean Bridgers). Along the way, we meet Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), the slave catcher who has a beef with Cora due to her mother's escape, and Homer (Chase Dillon), the Black boy who Ridgeway keeps as an assistant, driver, and companion.

Jenkins directs the horror of plantation life for enslaved people with a steady, confident hand. There are disturbing and gruesome scenes to be sure. There are two scenes of torture done to slaves and a plantation owner watches as he forces two slaves to fornicate. The first beating is done from a distance, the sounds of the whips and the cries of the slaves being the key things to witness. Jenkins keeps the camera back at a distance, not allowing the gaze to revel in the destruction of Black bodies. The second beating is more intense and may be difficult to watch without fast forwarding for most viewers. To make it worse, the white people have a quaint outdoor lunch while this is taking place, playing jaunty music during a man's suffering. Such scenes make it difficult to see the white people present as having any humanity to think lunch, music, and dancing could take place while a man's skin is being lacerated.

Much of the content is brutal. However, Jenkins brings out the beauty of many moments. The steam-filled swamps never looked better. Cinematographer James Laxton, who worked with Jenkins on both Moonlight and Beale Street, returns to partner with him again here. The lighting often turns ethereal, creating a kaleidoscope of colors that filters over the screen. In addition, composer Nicholas Britell, another Jenkins collaborator, creates a score that captures the longing and strength of the African American community. A sample is included in the attached videos.

Cora and Caesar sit close together
[L-R] Thuso Mbedu as CORA, Aaron Pierre as CAESAR in THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Viewers should know that The Underground Railroad is not a show to binge watch. The suffering witnessed feels very real and raw. It is prudent to space out episodes, take time to process, and find a watch partner to talk with. For white people, there is much to lament. For people of color, anger, loss, and grief could arise. Truly the history should be mourned by all of us. There have been many slave narratives created over the years. Personally I have chosen not to watch one in awhile. The Underground Railroad may have hit me hard because of this break. But that's the way it should be. If we grow insensitive to seeing people suffer, that's a problem. In the past few years, there have been more stories of IPOC which center the joy and pride of identity, rather than suffering. This is a good thing. Otherwise, the only time we see people of color on screen, it's of their bodies being tortured, brutalized, or used for pleasure. But this means it's harder to swallow the stories of suffering when they come.

The first episode sets the tone and shows viewers much about the characters of Cora and Caesar. While many may choose not to watch The Underground Railroad because they just can't stomach another slave narrative, Jenkins has created something rare and beautiful. A slave narrative that emphasizes the strength and resilience of the Black community, rather than the suffering.

Scene to watch for: Caesar reveals to Cora he can read, sharing excerpts from Gulliver's Travels. Also, look for when Cora and Caesar run through the field as fast as they can, seeing the safe harbor in front of them. Even though they are so close, the danger seems closer. And the train's arrival is magical.

Release info: Watch on Prime Video