The Underground Railroad (2021)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Director
Barry Jenkins
Run Time
20 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Violence
8/10
Langage
3/10
Sex & Nudity
4/10

Relevant Quotes

Be gracious to me, O Lord.
    See what I suffer from those who hate me;
    you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death

Psalm 9:13
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast.

James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

Rated TV-14 Running time: 10 Chapters, c. 10 hours

Cora picking cotton in a living diorama for tourists in South Carolina. (c) Prime Video

Barry Jenkins, who brilliantly captured the essence of James Baldwin’s polemical novel exposing the racism of our justice system, If Beale Street Could Talk, soars to even greater heights in this adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad. A fantasy novel that imagines that the metaphorical Underground Railroad used steam engines pulling passenger cars through a series of tunnels running beneath the slave states, one might wonder how the book with its re-imagined history would translate to the screen. The 10-part miniseries reassures readers like myself that the book landed in good hands, masterful hands. Jenkins and his co-screenwriters’ film deserve Hollywood publicists’ overworked phrase “monumental achievement.” Many scenes are difficult to watch, but these should not keep you away, especially if you are concerned about current developments in race relations.

There are ten parts or chapters in the miniseries. Their length runs from a paltry 20 minutes to over an hour.

In Chapter 1: Georgia, the film omits the book’s story of an ancestor stolen from Africa, beginning instead with the story of mild mannered Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave on a Georgia plantation in an unspecified year before the Civil War—probably around 1850. Though quiet on the outside, Cora harbors an inner rage against her mother Mabel who years earlier had run away, seemingly abandoning her. A fellow slave named Caesar (Aaron Pierre) falls in love with her and asks her to run away with him, but she refuses. Caesar is different from the other slaves in that he can read, his prize possession being a coverless copy of Gulliver’s Travels that he keeps hidden.

 Only after a whipping for trying to help a fellow slave and then the capture and horrible torture by whipping and burning of the runaway Big Anthony (Elijah Everett) does Cora agree to Caesar’s plan. Her friend Lovey (Zsané Jhé) unexpectedly joins them in the woods, but when some white hog farmers encounter them, she is recaptured. Cora herself escapes only by hitting a rock on the head and killing the young man who tackled her. With Caesar, Cora reaches the stop on the Underground Railroad, and the pair are taken to South Carolina. Part of the procedure includes, as we see at the subsequent stops, is the recording of their experience in slavery.

A slave catcher named Arnold Ridgeway (a melancholic Joel Edgerton) meets with plantation owner Randall, assuring him that he will bring back the escaped slaves. He had also chased after Cora’s mother Mabel (Sheila Atim), but failed to catch her. He vows that in her place he will run down and return Cora. His constant companion is the stylishly clothed little Homer (Chase W. Dillon), somewhere around 11 years old. The boy had been emancipated by Ridgeway but chose to stay and serve him, as faithful as a bird dog. He even locks himself into manacles each night before going to sleep.

Ridgeway & his servant Homer aim to return Cora to her master. (c) Prime Video

Chapter 2: South Carolina is set in Griffin, an imaginary city wherein South Carolinians have set up an experiment in race relations. Blacks live there in dormitories and seem to have considerable freedoms, though always under the guidance of kindly whites. The city is dominated by the 12-story Griffin Building, complete with a fancy elevator far beyond the crude freight and mine elevators that actually existed at the time. Caesar is able to leave his odious factory job and work in an office in the imposing building. Cora, besides domestic work and taking a night course in literacy, also joins the volunteers at the natural history museum where white visitors come to learn about the various stages of the Negro, from African “savagery” through the Middle Passage to picking cotton—all this shown by live tableaus.

There is a Twilight Zone feeling whenever we hear the whites talk about “helping the Negro.” This is borne out when Cora is told by her doctor that she is among those selected to have their tubes tied, and Caesar discovers among the records he types and files that some Blacks are unwittingly subjects for an experiment on the effects of syphilis. (Sound familiar?) This episode should make us aware that seemingly well-intended charity can be used to cover up a difficult to eradicate streak of racism. When Ridgeway tracks the pair to Griffin, Cora alone escapes via the URR.

In Chapter 3 North Carolina, we learn that the state has passed laws to get rid of all Blacks. The agent tells her the station is closed, but she gets off anyway. As they approach town they have to pass long rows of hanging bodies—all Blacks—lining the road on both sides. By law any Black person apprehended in the state is to be hanged.

The couple who take her in, Martin and Edith Wells, are upset with her because if they are caught aiding a Black, they too will be executed. Nonetheless, they hide her in a small loft above their attic, where she joins another hideaway named Grace. A devout believer, Edith fruitlessly tries to convert Cora to her religion. Cora and Grace witness through a small opening the weekly ritual of a Friday Festival. The “Christian” congregation meets in an outdoor pavilion for a service of racist preaching that culminates in the ritual killing of a captured “Negro.” Again, amidst a chaotic mob scene, Ridgeway shows up, shoots Cora’s male host, and rides off with Cora while the fire spreads from the Wells’ house to consume the other dwellings as well.

Cora’s story is interrupted by Chapter 4: The Great Spirit in which we learn of Ridgeway’s background. Raised by his skilled blacksmith father, the boy does not feel the presence of what Ridgeway Senior ((Peter Mullan)) calls “The Great Spirit.” Believing that this Spirit connects all human life, the slavery-hating father employs only Freedmen. Arnold feels cut off by his lack of talent in smithery leading to his father’s disappointment in him. The son turns in the opposite direction, resenting the Freedmen and eventually bankrolling some slave catchers and becoming one himself. His creed he calls the “American Imperative,”  similar to the popular belief in Manifest Destiny (brought up in Chapter 6), meaning “grab it for yourself.” By means of this chapter, Ridgeway is depicted not as a cardboard Simon Legree, but as a man with a troubled past. Several times he pensively visits the grave of his mother who died too young. (This giving over more details than the novel does, is one of several places in which the filmmakers depart from the original. Indeed, the short Chapter 7 “Fanny Briggs,” focusing on a minor character at an Underground station, is not in the book at all.)

In Chapter 5: Tennessee–Exodus, the land is devastated by out of control fires set by settlers intending to clear the land. Ridgeway’s party is traveling back toward Georgia. He has under his charge his servant Homer and a vicious man name Boseman, plus Cora and Jasper, a fellow slave who insists on singing hymns all the time. Ridgeway is well aware that this was recently Cherokee land, its former inhabitants forcibly removed West on “The Trail of Tears.” They no sooner leave the fire-devastated area than they enter an area plagued by Yellow Fever.

In Ch. 6: Tennessee Proverbs, Ridgeway stops off at his old home to find his elderly father has just died. A Black man named Royal appears, rescuing Cora and leaving Ridgeway fastened to a bed to be killed. Cora know that only her pursuer’s death will free her from his relentless pursuit. This does not happen, though Cora and her rescuer will not learn this until later.

In Chapter 8 Indiana Autumn, Royal takes Cora to Valentine Farm in southern Indiana where a group of enterprising Blacks have set up a cooperative farm under the leadership of  John Valentine (Peter De Jersey) and his wife, Gloria (Amber Gray). The main crop is grapes, from which they craft a fine commercial wine. For Cora this prosperous community is like paradise, the people all contributing to the farm’s success and celebrating each Saturday night with a bountiful feast, music, dancing and poetry reading.

Cora would love to settle down, especially once Royal declares his love for her, but in Chapter 9 Indiana Autumn, we see that the community is moving toward voting on two opposing plans for the future of their enterprise by possibly letting local Judge Smith (Cullen Moss) and his associates in on their lucrative business. Prompted by a man named Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji),  they want to expand their market and insure the safety of their utopia from predatory whites. All along Mingo has been against Cora staying at the farm because she is not only a runaway but also a killer. He reasons that if the farm harbors runaways, it will bring down the wrath of the whites upon them. The community gathers to vote, and Mingo and Valentine engage in a debate of the issues. Before they can vote, whites appear, first the Judge and two companions, and a little later a small army of armed townsmen sneak up on the building. Chaos ensues, increased by the presence of Ridgeway, whom Homer had saved from execution back in Tennessee. Amidst the violence Ridgeway recaptures Cora and forces her to show him the entrance to the local station. As they climb down the shaft Cora brings their conflict to a climax.

In Chapter 10: Mabel, we at last learn what has happened to Cora’s mother, and, of course, why she had not returned for her. And Cora herself? The outcome is virtually the same as in the novel, except that she flees with a companion, rather than alone. The two of them hitch a ride with Ollie, who hopes to start a new life out west away from whites.

However, no matter how far Cora journeys, she will carry her memories with her. I am not sure whether it was Caesar or John Valentine who said it, but these words will be true for her: “We cannot escape slavery. Its scars never fade. Even on skin like mine. It will always be with us.” These are important words because they pertain not just to the characters in this story but to our nation as well. Foolish whites sometimes complain about “all the talk about slavery.” Too many remain willfully ignorant of its poison running so deeply within us that the racism that was used to justify slavery still flows in our national veins today. Little wonder that some have called racism “America’s original sin.”

Chapter 9’s debate is well worth thinking about as well. Mingo, fearful of white disapproval, demands that Valentine Farm cease giving sanctuary to runaways. In other words, do not resist white racist society but accommodate your life to it. This is similar to what in the next generation Booker T. Washington will advise: Blacks should learn a trade rather than aspire to the white man’s forbidden professions—and by no means agitate for change. “Drop down your buckets,” he declared in a famous speech. On the other hand, Washington’s militant rival, W.E.B. DuBois, would have approved John Valentine’s plea that they continue to offer sanctuary to anyone fleeing from slavery. And remember how this brave man uses the word “delusion.” He refers to the Declaration of Independence and its words about freedom, stating that this country was founded on “delusion.” His strong words unmasking American hypocrisy are very similar to the sentiments of the Abolitionist Frederick Douglas in his famous speech “What To the Slave is Your 4th of July?” Like that speech, Valentine’s also is an attack on the hypocrisy of the founding document and those who praise it as a nation of freedom. Thus, for me, Chapter 9 is key to understanding what the novel and film are teaching.

Some have attacked the series for its graphic violence, claiming it is as exploitive as that in Django Unchained. This is to compare apples to oranges, Tarentino’s violence clearly intended to wreak vengeance on the evil white slave owner and his family. Neither Jenkins nor Whitehead are seeking vengeance, their intent being to expose the rotten violence of slavery that has been covered up apologists for the Lost Cause for 160 years. There is no doubt that the horrific murder of Big Anthony is difficult to watch, as well as other whippings and acts of white brutality scattered throughout the film. This film is not something to show a young child, but it serves like a branding iron to sear into our consciousness the horror that was slavery.

Slavery was born in violence and maintained by violence. Nor, as some claim, is the violence over-exaggerated—just read some of the accounts of lynching’s, as late as the 20th century, and see what racists have done to their victims’ bodies, even bringing their children along to “teach them a lesson.” One further note about Big Anthony’s ordeal is to point out that Jenkins gives him more of a voice than the novel does: we see Anthony several times before he tries to escape, and just before the flames consume him he cries out, “No more masters! No more slaves!” An echo of the old slave song, “Oh Freedom!”?

There is much ugliness in the film, culminating in the attack upon and burning of Valentine Farm. Its destruction reminds us of other atrocities, such as the mob obliteration of prosperous Black communities in Wilmington, North Carolina  in 1898, Tulsa, Oklahoma  in 1921, and Rosewood, Florida in 1923. (See my review of John Singleton’s Rosewood.) But there is also a great deal of beauty in the episodes—both of sight and sound. The beautiful mountains and that vineyard in Indiana. Valentine Farm’s long tables laden with food and the Blacks celebrating. That large railroad station full of well dressed Blacks passing by the gorgeous mural decorating one of its walls.

The large mural decorating one of the more developed URR stations. (c) Prime Video

Like a WPA era painting, it depicts the building of the Railroad. (I have not yet been able to learn who is the artist.) There are moments when we see groups and an individual Black stare straight ahead at the camera* as if they want to make sure we see them dressed up, rather than the way they are often portrayed, dressed in  the raggedly clothes of field hands. And there is composer Nicholas Britell’s haunting score, supplemented by numerous old and contemporary songs that conclude each segment. Even Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” is used to a charming effect in one scene.

Early on a conductor tells Cora as she boards a train, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” While traveling she can only see darkness, and between stops she sees so many dark deeds perpetrated by the country’s white inhabitants that she could be excused for giving up hope on America. But she doesn’t. She fights and perseveres, until at the end of the story, after losing two lovers and most of those who had aided her, she begins still another journey toward the West, this time in a small wagon. But what will the three travelers find out there? More of the same?

It will be 50 years before James Weldon writes for a Lincoln’s birthday celebration the words of what came to be called “The Negro National Anthem,” but they well describe Cora’s “stony road” and her back scarred by “the chast’ning rod.” Having traveled “path through the blood of the slaughtered,” will she and her companions ever find “the bright gleam of our bright star is cast”? We can only hope so, and as we see in the film and in the book, so do Barry Jenkins and Colson Whitehead.

*The director has made a side project out of these shots, a nearly hour-long clip-reel called “The Gaze,” set to Britell’s score and available for free at https://vimeo.com/546795671.)

The Smithsonian Magazine has a good article on the miniseries “The True Story of the “Underground Railroad.”

This review will be in the June issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion.I will arrange the questions according to the appropriate chapter, If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.

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