Review: The Underground Railroad (2021)

The Underground Railroad (2021)

Directed by: Barry Jenkins | 600 minutes | drama, history | Actors: Thuso Mbedu, Chase Dillon, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Pierre, Amber Gray, William Jackson Harper, Peter Mullan, Kraig Dane, Sheila Atim, Jeff Pope, Lucius Baston, Kylee D. Allen, Mychal-Bella Bowman, Lily Rabe, Damon Herriman, David Wilson Barnes, Lucy Faust, Trevor David, Marcus Gladney Jr., Calvin Leon Smith, Peter De Jersey, Chukwudi Iwuji, Deja Dee, Luray Cooper, Kara Flowers, Owen Harn, Monique Grant, Sherry Richards

Barry Jenkins is one of today’s most promising directors. What’s so strong about him is that he’s not one of those filmmakers who compromise to make his audience more comfortable. He knows exactly what he wants and is committed to the story he wants to tell. He already proved it with ‘Moonlight’ (2016) and ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ (2018), which earned him praise from critics and viewers around the world and won one film award after another. The expectations for his next project were therefore high. This time, however, the director does not deliver a film, but a ten-part mini-series. The highly anticipated film adaptation of “The Underground Railroad,” based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, is the filmmaker’s latest work.

In ‘The Underground Railroad’ we meet Cora (Thuso Mbedu). Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, where conditions are particularly harsh due to the daily routine of exploitation and violence. When Cora was a child, her mother escaped. As a result, she was left alone on the plantation and had to fend for herself. Despite hiring the infamous slave hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), Cora’s mother was never found. Cora eventually becomes a pariah on the plantation, but when the new slave Caesar (Aaron Pierre) arrives, her whole life changes. He asks Cora to escape with him. According to Caesar, there is an underground train network waiting for them, which secretly transports slaves to the free North. It’s the start of a nerve-racking journey through the heart of America.

‘The Underground Railroad’ does not hesitate long. A small glimpse into Cora’s initially ordinary life serves as an introduction to the damaged character and at the same time illustrates the hellish journey to freedom she will soon undergo. What follows makes it clear why Barry Jenkins was the right director for the series. Without overlooking important aspects and without clichés, the series depicts the horrific life of a black slave in nineteenth-century Georgia. Without the ability to defend herself against the violence and arbitrariness of the slave owners, Cora is constantly subjected to the most horrific humiliations. Jenkins does not underline badness with sentimentality, but shows it with a clarity and intensity that transcends the usual imagery. Cameraman James Laxton’s clear images set the tragedy in an enchanting and ever-changing landscape. The beauty of the landscape and the cruelty of the people who inhabit it always create a bewildered and saddening contrast.

With heavily loaded topics it’s easy to fall into the trap of bleakness, but ‘The Underground Railroad’ isn’t all about violence and atrocities after all. As television in its contemporary form increasingly does, Jenkins also makes maximum use of the depth of his characters. Joel Edgerton’s character, Ridgeway, is a prime example of this. While a movie would have limited time for deepening, Jenkins devotes an entire episode to the background of the slave hunter. This is a wise decision. A character like Ridgeway would normally be reduced to a one-dimensional villain. Instead, Jenkins examines him to the core. We get to know him, see his struggles and discover his motivations for the heinous acts he commits. During some episodes, you could almost fool yourself into believing that the series only pertains to Ridgeway. But Edgerton plays his part so well, and the cat-and-mouse game with Cora is so endearing, you can’t really blame Jenkins.

With impressive acting, good technicalities and an unadorned unscrupulous portrayal of the former slavery era, ‘The Underground Railroad’ manages to achieve a lot. It is not always an easy viewing experience, but it is a weighty one, with a great eye for detail. It is to be hoped that Barry Jenkins will maintain this level.

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