“If you want to see what this nation’s all about, you've got to ride the rails. Just look outside as you speed through and you’ll see the true face of America.”
Those were the final words uttered by a railroad agent as Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), two runaway slaves, eagerly boarded the train in episode one of Amazon Prime’s The Underground Railroad—and I can't stop thinking about them. It's a rather odd farewell to give two hopeful slaves who are desperate for freedom, but it feels appropriate. Especially since they've yet to fully understand how deeply flawed America is.
I just spent the last hour watching part one of Barry Jenkins's limited series (an adaptation of Colson Whitehead's eponymous novel), which follows two slaves who escape from a Georgia plantation during the 1800s and make it to the Underground Railroad, a secret network of routes and tunnels that includes a literal railroad. And now, I feel a strange mix of emotions, from rage to sadness to hope.
The Underground Railroad is very difficult to watch, but Jenkins isn’t aiming to exploit Black trauma. Rather, he's trying to offer a raw and honest portrayal of stories that need to be told. Even so, I found myself wholly unprepared for the more graphic scenes. For instance, one scene that really shook me was when Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) casually quoted the Bible and then set a Black man on fire, forcing the other slaves to watch. This and a few other incidents on the plantation were extremely unsettling to see, but the writing and authentic portrayal of complex characters (particularly the slaves) still kept me engrossed.
I was immediately fascinated by Cora because of her dark history. She grew up feeling unwanted and continues to grapple with her mother’s abandonment, but she’s also got a compassionate side to her (like when she runs out to protect a young boy from being beaten) and she’s filled with ambition. It’s so interesting to see how she balances these qualities—and I was especially struck by Mbedu's ability to convey so much emotion without saying a word.
Mbedu and Pierre both give powerful performances and I already feel very attached to their characters. They feel like a reflection of today’s Black community, who are still dealing with the aftermath of America’s racist history. But I’m really inspired by their fearless drive. I want them to find true freedom—even that seems impossible.
Though I’ve only seen one episode so far, I can tell you that if you’re looking for historical accuracy, you won’t find it here. The story actually blends historical events with magical realism in a way that’s really compelling. But as eager as I am to continue following Cora's journey, I’m hesitant to watch more of the series right away because the darker themes are just a lot to take in.
It’s probably not the wisest idea to binge The Underground Railroad all at once, but given its timely commentary on the state of America, I’d say it’s definitely worth the watch.
All 10 episodes of The Underground Railroad are now available to stream on Amazon Prime.
PUREWOW RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5 STARS
There are multiple scenes that are nearly pitch-black, making it extremely hard to follow what's happening. Still, it's a unique and powerful story that will spark some needed conversations about racism in America.
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