Amazon Prime’s The Underground Railroad is not a companion piece to 2019’s Harriet, the biopic based on the life of slavery abolitionist, Harriet Tubman.
Tubman was an escaped slave and mid-19th century abolitionist. Renowned as the ‘conductor’ of the Underground Railroad, she fearlessly performed 13 clandestine rescue missions, guiding enslaved African Americans to freedom in the northern states.
Rather, Amazon’s The Underground Railroad fancifully exists only underground, replete with smoking locomotives on subterranean iron tracks, carrying first-class passenger cars.
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Colson Whitehead, the story allows the enslaved to escape, but never truly to freedom.
Young runaway Cora (beautifully played by actress Thuso Mbedu), flees a cruelly oppressive Georgia plantation, riding the underground railroad to stops in South Carolina, North Carolina and even Indiana.
At each juncture, she discovers new forms of diabolical racism.
One seemingly progressive city insidiously reduces its Black population by winnowing out lesser males through medical experimentation. One state lynches all Blacks and their white protectors as a matter of law.
Even in the north, the success of thriving and prosperous Black communities become too much for surrounding white citizens to tolerate. The Tuskegee Airmen, southern white vigilantes, the Tulsa Race Massacre and Indiana’s 1923 KKK resurgence come to mind.
Cora’s nemesis, the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (played by an excellent Joel Edgerton), believes slavery is a vital part of America’s manifest destiny.
Preaching to both Cora and his young enslaved Black assistant Homer (11-year-old Chase Dillon), Ridgeway insists the United States should “lift up the lesser races. If not lift-up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate.”
Amazon’s adaptation of The Underground Railroad is surprising, moving – and shocking.
There is nothing formulaic here – no contextual historic exposition or explaining, such as references to the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, abolition, or the importance of cotton to the deep south’s economy.
Instead, there is an underpinning of fantasy, even when events are violently ritualistic or measured and serene in the interactions between characters.
With few exceptions, we are dependent upon the relationship between Cora and her pursuer Ridgeway to stake out the script’s moral compass.
There is also a bit of an allegorical red herring involving the soon-to-escape Caesar (Aaron Pierre), apparently inspired by his hidden copy of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Thanks to director Barry Jenkins and a sizeable list of talented writers, the CGI-enhanced production seems liberated by being fully conscience of delivering its final version in a streaming environment. For example, chapter seven, unlike the other 50-plus-minute episodes, runs significantly under 30 minutes, something HBO or Showtime would not risk attempting.
Interestingly, in a series with its share of graphic and truly shocking violence, chapter seven is also the only episode advising parental guidance for “7+” age-groups.
A special call-out to a uniquely experimental and almost period-free soundtrack.
(Top image: Thuso Mbedu. Credit: Kyle Kaplan. Copyright: Amazon Studios)
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