In Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, a young girl’s presence mysteriously and quietly lingers. She’s first introduced (in the third chapter) as “Grace” (Mychal-Bella Bowman), as she sits hiding in a cramped attic for numerous months, waiting for the real, operational underground railroad to take her out of North Carolina and into safer, less narrow spaces. Yet Grace isn’t this series’ lead, or even one of its often seen characters, though she does cross paths with Cora (Thuso Mbedu), the overall protagonist and most seasoned traveler, when the grown runaway crawls into Grace’s confined refuge, seeking similar concealment from the malicious forces out for both of them. Like so much of this ten episode series, Grace feels open to literal and figurative interpretations; she’s a flesh-and-blood character and an ethereal embodiment of life itself; she’s inspired by Harriet Jacobs, a real woman who hid in an attic for seven years before she could escape to freedom in the North, and she’s a mysterious blend who plays by her own rules. Grace drifts out of the story as softly as she’s brought in, but her presence lingers in a way that’s appropriate for one of the series’ few expansions on Colson Whitehead’s novel. For an adaptation that tweaks very little about its Pulitzer Prize-winning source material, Grace stands out as more than just enrichment to the text; she’s a reference to the author’s past work and a symbol of how elegantly The Underground Railroad frames its historical fiction to display lasting truths.
Similar nuances and layers exist throughout this saga. The Underground Railroad employs aspects from traditional slave narratives, including sadistic torture and villainy, but it builds off such graphic displays instead of making them the core focus. (In particularly, a scene in the second chapter feels like it’s calling out past movies and TV-shows that defined its black characters primarily through pain, as white curators at a museum ostensibly founded to honor African American history emphasize cruelty over curiosity.) Later chapters, though, prove to be astoundingly tender, as Jenkin’s trademark patience behind the camera builds romance and passion with powerful precision, establishing unique individual identities for every character, fleshing each of them out with such intricacies, no matter how many scenes they get. Nothing in this world is untouched by slavery, and yet human nature at its purest still shines through, unvarnished, in far more characters and moments than anyone could imagine.
The saga opens on a pre-Civil War Georgia plantation, where a tall, blue-eyed, formerly free man named Caesar (Aaron Pierre) tries to convince his love Cora to run north. She refuses, at first, claiming to be too tied to the people she’d have to leave behind and to the life she’d been born into, yet she eventually agrees. After all, her family is gone: Her mother Mabel (Sheila Atim) left years ago, when Cora was little, and now she’s a local legend — admired for her courage and feared for the uncertain example she’s set. Cora frequently sees what happens to those who attempt to run away and are caught, and so do us the viewers. Many of the early scenes are gruelingly terrifying to the point of making you want to look away yet that’s part of the point: Anyone would want to run, but few could face such consequences.
Soon The Underground Railroad moves away from its plantation setting. On the run from a notorious slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), Cora ventures into South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana, where each state carries various forms of contempt against black people. The small town of Griffin, South Carolina seems downright utopian compared to the merciless fields of Georgia, but appearances can be deceiving. North Carolina wears its hatred on its sleeve: All black people are outlaws, whether they’re slaves, free men, or something in between — it’s a crime simply to exist. Tennessee and Indiana take on various identities depending on the episode. One chapters sends Cora traversing through hell on Earth, as she travels over literal scorched Earth in search of hope amid desolation. Another chapter discovers a welcoming community of wine-makers, where Cora can see a future beyond the cruel fate that surrounded her. It’s with each state that lands as a different manifestation of Cora’s subconscious and a reflection of her internal state. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton’s camera embodies such a state as well: It’s a marvel to watch such a camera rise and fall (amongst the series’ many crane shots) as it mirrors the characters’ emotional states, soaring to impossible heights in good times and sinking into the dirt during their lowest points, finding tactile enchantment in each image.
By connecting stories with states and dividing states into telling themes, Jenkins and his co-writers — Jacqueline Hoyt, Nathan C. Parker, Allison David, Adrienne Rush, and Jihan Crowther — flex their strong episodic structure, packing facets upon facets into their storytelling. From the fleeting yet singular performances (such as Calvin Leon Smith as runaway slave Jasper in chapter six) to Jenkins’ preeminent dreamily fluid staging, to the impeccable music choices (including Nicholas Britell’s throbbing, overall impeccable score and more anachronistic tracks picked by Jenkins for each set of end credits), every episode provides an immense amount of material to dissect and discuss, all of which is more important than reaching the end of the narrative — The Underground Railroad is possibly not something to binge, but to ease through.
What’s so completely striking about The Underground Railroad is how richly it captures the interiority of its characters, no matter how much time they’re given. Cora guides nearly every episode, which provides the talented newcomer Mbedu plenty of room to push her freedom-seeking journeywoman through staggering emotional terrain; with little-to-no overt exposition, Cora’s choices always add up, even as her internal progression grows more complex by the day. The sturdy episodic arcs allow Jenkins to dip into other characters’ stories, including an astounding arc for Ridgeway, of all people. Edgerton, in his career-best performance, avoids the pitfalls common to villains of the antebellum South; framed as Cora’s unwanted savior as often as her unrelenting hunter, there’s a fiery guilt driving this complicated slave catcher, and Edgerton — along with his amateur partner Homer, played with maturity beyond his years by Chase Dillon — softens and hardens his antagonist to make him unpredictable and aware on a human level.
Yet looming over all of this is Grace. While staying spoiler-free, part of her resolution is used as a rebuke to the beliefs of Ridgeway. In a previous episode, during a drunken piece of philosophizing, Ridgeway says, “The will of the spirit is nothing compared to the heart that’s overwhelmed with hate.” As unpleasant as such a claim sounds, there’s truth to it, and Jenkins’ story lives in that hate long enough for its power to sink in. But Grace doesn’t let it consume her. Hate burns through so much of The Underground Railroad, with many of its protagonists either feeling the heat or being badly burned. But none are ever engulfed to their demise. When the saga ends they stand in loving, peaceful defiance, one character after the next smiling together, or simply staring back at you, asking for their tenacity and experience to be acknowledged. And you can’t help but be engulfed by it. It’s impossible not to feel closer to this world and everyone in it. From Cora to Caesar, Ridgeway to Grace, their lives erupt through the confined frames of history, reexamining and redefining the American experience — through all fragments of history and fiction ultimately finding truth. Between its poetic expressions of heart-rendering tenderness and haunting tragedy, The Underground Railroad is big-canvas storytelling at its most transcendent; an embodiment of spiritual fortitude and ethereal power.
The Underground Railroad is available to stream on Prime Video