William Jackson Harper and Joel Edgerton on confronting the trauma of slavery in 'The Underground Railroad'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
William Jackson Harper and Joel Edgerton on confronting the trauma of slavery in 'The Underground Railroad'
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The Underground Railroad
William Jackson Harper as Royal and Thuso Mbedu as Cora in "The Underground Railroad." ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA/AMAZON
  • "The Underground Railroad" is Amazon's latest limited series.

  • William Jackson Harper and Joel Edgerton spoke to Insider about their roles on the show.

  • The two actors also discussed how they dealt with the trauma of the show's narrative.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

With his dazzling latest project "The Underground Railroad," an adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Barry Jenkins finds himself at the center of an ongoing debate surrounding the depiction and fetishization of slavery and Jim Crow-era racism in contemporary American entertainment.

Over the last few weeks, the debate has reached its peak, spurred on by the release of Amazon's woeful anthology horror show "Them," which, in a review elsewhere, Insider laments due to its voyeuristic depictions of cruelty and sexual violence. Although the argument isn't restricted to film and television. In 2016, the art world was divided over a painting of Emmett Till, disfigured in his casket, by Dana Schutz, a white artist from Brooklyn.

While newsreels continue to be dominated by images of police killings, it is legitimate for audiences to express fatigue and question the merit of fictionalized depictions of such violence.

"I think that's a good debate to have," Joel Edgerton, who plays Ridgeway, a hardened slave catcher who tracks down and returns escaped people to their enslavers, one of "The Underground Railroad's" only recurring white characters, told Insider.

"On one hand, there will be a criticism if you go too far. Because it's hard, and it's triggering, obviously. And yet, I can also imagine a world where you get criticized for not going to the darkest places because then you're rewriting history, or you're watering it down, or you're sweeping it a little under the carpet."

"Slavery is traumatic. There's no way to truthfully render that without it being intensely traumatic."

b9d9a639 247f 4bb2 ba39 825807abe67e UGRR_S1_Unit_102_1728R
Joel Edgerton in "The Underground Railroad." KYLE KAPLAN/AMAZON STUDIOS

"The Underground Railroad" follows the story of an orphaned, enslaved woman named Cora, played brilliantly by South African actor Thuso Mbedu, who escapes from a plantation in Georgia with her companion Caesar (Aaron Pierce) and together they discover the underground railroad, which, in this telling, has been transformed into a literal railroad operated and conducted below ground by free Black men and women.

The railroad provides a deeply grim look at the pre-Civil War American South, with each stop on the railway displaying - to varying degrees - the horrors of the supremacist delusions ingrained in the heart of the nation. As one character says to Cora before she takes her first journey on the fictional train: "If you wanna see what this nation's all about, you gotta ride the rails. Just look outside as you speed through and you'll see the true face of America."

The 10-part limited series opens on the plantation in Georgia where we see an enslaved man flogged and then burned alive on a stake. As we make our way through North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana, the violence doesn't become any less disturbing. And the beautiful visual palette provided by Barry Jenkins and his longtime collaborator, cinematographer James Laxton, does little to lessen the blow. In fact, the odd dichotomy between the two enhances the horror of humanity.

"Slavery is traumatic. There's no way to truthfully render that without it being intensely traumatic. And it's always intensely triggering for me to see those stories." William Jackson Harper, who stars as an abolitionist named Royal, told Insider.

The Underground Railroad
Director Barry Jenkins on the set of "The Underground Railroad." Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

"The Underground Railroad" captures Harper in a dramatically different setting to his previous work. The 41-year-old actor is best known as Chidi Anagonye, the wacky but harmless philosophy professor in NBC's popular sitcom, "The Good Place." And on the big screen, he is most familiar for his role as an equally idiosyncratic Ph.D. student in Ari Aster's millennial breakup horror flick, "Midsommar." This sort of token Black nerd archetype can be lucrative. Previous occupants have included Donald Glover, Alfonso Ribeiro, and Richard Ayoade. But Harper told Insider that he was drawn to this project because of its roots in resistance against subjugation.

"It's about a woman deciding that enough is enough," he said. "And it's not to say that that story has never been told before, but I find this particular version of that story and the character of Cora so inspiring because it's not just about like, 'She's an enslaved person and all she wants is to not be an enslaved person.' Cora is a person who's trying to reconcile with the trauma from her mom leaving her. There are so many other things at play."

The mystery of Cora's mother is one of the smartest literary devices Whitehead deploys in the novel and it is masterfully transferred to the screen by Jenkins. It is also what sets "The Underground Railroad" apart from all other depictions of American slavery. In twin emotional hits we begin by witnessing the familiar physical horrors of slavery, but then we fall deeper into the psychological realities through Cora's maternal loss, something audiences everywhere can relate to, which means when then shocking torture reappears, the audience's emotional reaction is deeply somatic.

Harper told Insider that the emotional hit was just as hard for the actors.

"I was in and out of shooting. I shot a little bit of 'Underground Railroad' and then went and shot some of 'The Good Place,' and then came back to 'Underground Railroad' and then shot this little indie movie, so I was just forced to shake it off every time I would leave set."

"The Underground Railroad" links the horrors of slavery to the modern world

13UNDERGROUND1 superJumbo v2
Thuso Mbedu in "The Underground Railroad." Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios

Beyond the literal manifestation of the railroad, the show also makes several other imaginative and ingenious leaps to create a link between its fictional world and contemporary American life. When the railroad stops in South Carolina, Cora and her companion meet a new world. Slavery is outlawed. This is a state of modern industry, skyscrapers, and science. Formerly enslaved peoples are provided with jobs and healthcare, but as Cora scrapes slightly below the surface, she discovers the state is actually enacting plans to sterilize Black women and use Black men as test subjects in an experiment to track the spread of syphilis.

This part of the show is where many audiences may decide to tap out. Pointing out the lingering legacy of injustice and racial division is America's least favorite pastime. Last month, when Pete Buttigieg, the Secretary of Transportation said "there is racism physically built into some of our highways," referencing the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, he was roundly mocked.

In the same way, Edgerton told Insider that he saw many similarities between "The Underground Railroad" and what he saw while watching the news and witnessing "the confident outing of white supremacists and white supremacy groups in America and around the world" last year.

Joel Edgerton Underground Railroad
Joel Edgerton in "The Underground Railroad." Amazon Prime

"It started to make me wonder about how Ridgeway was formed," he said. "So I started thinking, I gotta stop looking at those groups as groups and start to think of them as a combination of individuals and what was behind the thinking, the shaping, the education, and the evolution of all those individuals that allows that group thinking."

He continued: "That became a real connection to the modern things that we're living through. And took it away from, just, somehow this is some period story that involves a bounty hunter that I get to play. This still goes on and it's morphed into different things."

"The Underground Railroad's" unrelenting honestly may ring as cathartic for some. But the show will undoubtedly turn away others. And to that Edgerton said: "Look, everyone has a choice. It's still TV. And I think what you gotta ask yourself is 'would I regret doing something more or not doing it.'

"Either way, if I feel like something feels challenging to me, whether it's a role in a film or an experience in travel, I always lean into the uncomfortableness because I know that might provide something new for me. And, you can always press stop."

"The Underground Railroad" is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from Friday.

Read the original article on Insider