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The Underground Railroad: An epic vision of Black American history

Runaway slave Cora, played by South African actor, Thuso Mbedu | Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

3 min read

When I embarked on watching this 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s, 2016 Pulitzer prize winning novel on slavery, The Underground Railroad, I had high expectations – but also dread and anxiety as to how the subject would be tackled by the renowned director, Barry Jenkins.

I was not let down: it is a weaving and meandering narrative of Black American history told through the linked stories of the main protagonists, shot on location on former cotton plantations in Georgia.

It tells the story of Cora, played by South African actress Thuso Mbedu, and Caesar, a south London actor, Aaron Pierre, and their pursuit for freedom from the Randall plantation. They are fiercely hunted throughout by the demonic slave-catcher Ridgeway, played by Joel Edgerton, who after previously failing to capture Cora’s runaway mother Mable develops an obsession with Cora, who in turn feels abandoned and let down by her mother. Underground is about Cora and the people she meets in her fight for freedom.

The opening scenes of the first episode are brutal and harrowing. I found it difficult and painful viewing – reminiscent of the brutality depicted in Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave – a story of the bleak history of America and the dehumanisation of enslaved Africans in the southern states of America.

Underground shows the capture and heinous killing of the enslaved African “Big Anthony,” while the slave owner and acquaintances have lunch on the pristine lawn of the Randall Plantation. The slave owner gathers the enslaved Africans from the fields to witness Big Anthony having the skin whipped off his body, before he is burnt alive, screaming “God damns you”. As viewers we don’t witness the atrocity, only the aftermath of his charred body; this abhorrent act is the catalyst for Cora to choose to escape with Caesar.

This adaptation is described as a fantasy series – but don’t expect it to be a comfortable watch

The underground railroad of the title is depicted as a literal embodiment of a railroad, with secret stops. But in reality it was a series of safe houses that enabled enslaved Africans to escape to the North and Canada, made famous by Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, former enslaved African women and political activists.

This adaptation is described as a fantasy series – but don’t expect it to be a comfortable watch: expect instead strong racial language and to learn about the struggle of Black people in America over the decades and centuries, the lynchings and the segregation. Each episode is filmed in a different state, including Georgia, which was a fiercely contested state during the 2020 USA presidential election. 

In a particularly turbulent time in American history, we witnessed the death of George Floyd by a serving police officer – described as a present day lynching – the building of the Black Lives Matter movement, and “Make America Great Again” demonstrators storming the Capitol.

Jenkins has produced an epic vision of Black American history, that tries to find human tenderness at the heart of the brutal atrocities.

Kim Johnson is Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside

The Underground Railroad is directed by Barry Jenkins
Broadcaster: Amazon Prime

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