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The Underground Railroad: TV Show Review

A black man stares at camera
Aaron Pierre as Caesar

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 found in 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.

A group of people run by with one person chasing
A group of enslaved children run from a pursuer

The story follows the journey of two slaves who escape from the Randall Plantation in Georgia, making their way from the Deep South to midwestern America by underground rail. Along the way, they encounter different forms of racism, each representing a historical period of American history. Their quest takes them and us into an exploration of the heart of America and the troubled legacy of racism in this country.

Much of the content is brutal. However, Jenkins brings out the beauty of many moments. 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 woman looks at camera
Thuso Mbedu as CORA

The show carries a cinematic quality that few shows achieve. However, adapting The Underground Railroad as a mini-series is the right call. It allows for more perusing, more discussion, and more soul searching, if only America would learn not to binge watch every show.

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.

As I review each episode, my episode recaps will be linked below:

Chapter 1: Georgia

Chapter 2: South Carolina

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