Amazon Prime review: 'The Underground Railroad' is painful to watch yet a must-see

Fred Hawson

Posted at Jun 05 2021 06:25 AM

Amazon Prime review: 'The Underground Railroad' is painful to watch yet a must-see 1
A scene from 'The Underground Railroad'

Slaves Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar Gardner (Aaron Pierre) escaped from the plantation in Georgia where they worked. They were on their way to catch a train on the Underground Railroad, when Cora accidentally killed a white teenager in self-defense, making her a fugitive from justice on top of being a runaway. Since then, slave catcher Arnold Ridgeley (Joel Edgerton), along with his little sidekick Homer (Chase W. Dillon), were hot in pursuit.

The Underground Railroad here was a real train system running on underground tunnels. The series followed Cora's difficult ordeal from Georgia to South Carolina (where she discovered a sterilization program for blacks) to North Carolina (where she was in a religious cult community dedicated to white purity), to Tennessee (where she was held in the Ridgeway household), and to Indiana (where she was in a prosperous black wine-making community). 

The series was not easy to watch, definitely not to binge. If you have seen "Roots" or "12 Years a Slave" before, you already know what to expect, and you will see painfully emotional elaborations of the same theme for 10 episodes. The very first episode alone was already deeply unsettling with the continuous scenes of tyranny, culminating in a mortifying scene of a public burning. This ride was as arduous for the viewer as it was for Cora. 

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What kept me riveted to the screen was the cinematography which was so artistically beautiful, no matter how stark the images were. The best camera work for me were the cold bleakness in Episode 5 ("Tennessee Exodus") and the warmth of hope emanated in Episode 7 (Fanny Briggs"). The musical score was remarkable in establishing the atmosphere, and the choice of final song can be startling, like Childish Gambino's "This is America" in Episode 9.

Two episodes focused on Arnold Ridgeway: Episode 4 ("The Great Spirit') about young Arnold (Fred Hechinger) and his upright blacksmith father (Peter Mullan); and Episode 6 ("Tennessee Proverbs") about Arnold revisiting his dying father to pay his respects. These were distracting detour episodes which did not give Arnold Ridgeway any new dimension. Episode 6, in particular, was practically shot in darkness the whole time, and was very straining to the eyes. 

Thuso Mbedu held the series together with her strength of character hidden under her deceptively fragile frame and gentle face. Aaron Pierre, who played Cora's initial partner Caesar, had a charismatic presence. Mychal-Bella Bowman was a winsome Grace, the girl who shared an attic with Cora. William Jackson Harper was a comforting presence as Royal, Cora's friend in Indiana. Sheila Atim totally owned the final episode as Mabel, Cora's mother. 

The best-written episode was Episode 9 ("Indiana Winter") which featured a heated yet eloquent debate between two wealthy black men: John Valentine (Peter de Jersey), who welcomed all blacks into his community regardless of their background; and Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji), who wanted to be more discriminating on who to admit into their group. For this powerful scene alone, both British actors deserve to be cited for awards.

The alternative concept of an actual physical railroad system which can be used by slaves to escape may not be easy to swallow, but series creator and director Barry Jenkins wove his story from the novel by Colson Whitehead with such cinematic artistry that he made the masochistic journey compelling to watch all the way through. Jenkins is certainly poised for more awards to add to the ones he won for his breakthrough film "Moonlight" (2016). 
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."