Halfway through the first episode of The Underground Railroad director Barry Jenkins cuts to a POV shot of a hanged man being burned alive – the camera blinking through his smoke-choked eyelids as a garden party of rich white plantation owners watch on over tea and crumpets. Spanning 10 hours of horror, beauty and savagery, Jenkins’ sprawling American epic is all about perspective – seeing and being seen through eyes that history has always been blind to – a heart-breaking masterpiece that’s hard to watch but shouldn’t be missed.
Adapting Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Jenkins (director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk) tackles slavery via science-fiction. In reality, the underground railroad was a name given to a series of secret routes and safehouses set up to help escaped slaves make it out of the Deep South to the relative freedom of the north, but Colson’s novel imagined it as an actual tunnel network buried beneath 19th century Georgia. It’s a metaphor made real and turned right back into allegory for both the book and the series – with a fictional steam train helping to carry something as a big and horrific and unfilmable as the slave experience in the passenger of one girl named Cora (South African rising star Thuso Mbedu).
At its core, The Underground Railway keeps its focus simple – the story of a woman on the run and a man (Joel Edgerton) obsessed with tracking her down – and a lot of the series plays out in the interior conflict between two people at the opposite end of a length of chain. But the real weight of the drama comes from everything else around the main cat-and-mouse story, as a dozen lives intersect around Cora’s flight to paint a vast portrait of American racism and the roots of cruelty.
Supremely confident in its own format (one episode is 70 minutes long, another is less than 20), the show sits somewhere between film and TV – playing like a novel but looking like something that deserves to be seen at the cinema. Spread across ten chapters, every episode feels unique – equal parts scorched Earth western, tense historical thriller, magical surrealist sci-fi and bitter family drama – yet Jenkins directs all with a beautiful and harrowing mix of poetry and horror. An alternate history in the same way The Handmaid’s Tale is an alternate future, The Underground Railway uses fiction to say something important about our present, giving us a real-world nightmare with flecks of fiction only when it works best to underline a hard truth – a clash of contexts that’s drummed home by end credit tracks from Outkast, The Pharcyde and Childish Gambino.
Mbedu is the standout star as Cora, shouldering an impossible amount of the show’s emotions alongside a career-best turn from Edgerton, but the smart detours of the main story allow plenty of room for the strong ensemble cast to make an impact. Aaron Pierre (Britannia), Peter Mullan (Westworld), William Jackson Harper (The Good Place) and Damon Herriman (Charles Manson in Mindhunter and Once Upon A Time…) all stand out, as do 11-year-old Mychal-Bella Bowman and 12-year-old Chase Dillon who both already seem like future Oscar-winners.
Images and sounds linger long after you’ve finished (a cotton-picker working in a glass museum box for a crowd of school kids, the alien buzz of insects that constantly swells the score), but it’s the feeling of The Underground Railroad that lasts the longest: painful, exhilarating, frightening and tragic far beyond what usually gets seen on the small (or big) screen. It’s not always an easy watch, but TV has never felt more essential.
‘The Underground Railroad’ is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video