Andrei Tarkovsky was the name on Barry Jenkins“Lips as the main influence for his television adaptation of “The subway.” Not the first name to think of when considering the size of Colson Whiteheads 2016 novel. The story: A combination of the agonizing difficulties of a fleeing slave with a vast volume of magical realism does not immediately describe the Russian author. And yet the cameraman’s glowing graphics James Laxton listen back “Instant light” a small collection of Polaroid photos by Tarkovsky. The wispy poetic mystique of these images wafts through much of the beautiful images of the golden hour that appear on Underground Railroad. The inspiration is there, but this show is sure to be a job by Jenkins. Filled with moments and themes that resonated with each of the director’s previous plays.
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Centered around Cora (Thuso Mbedu), who, at the request of a fellow slave and potential suitor, Caesar, embarks on an agonizing journey from her Georgian plantation (Aaron Pierre), Cora’s plight turns into a quest for true freedom in America while she is hunted down by a notorious slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), which Cora desperately wants to bring back to its supposed rightful owners.
A celebrated director known for his films in which race and love intersect, “Underground Railroad” is Jenkins’s boldest project yet. An impressive fable of scaling that uses the time a miniseries can give to let the details and emotions breathe. Characters come and go. Some welcome. Others hold secrets and scars caused by the rancid, caustic nature of racism. What Jenkins remains loyal to earlier works are the themes of lost love, racial displacement, and belonging. And while the events alternate between the 19th century, his message feels relevant to where we are now. Book burning is less well known, but anti-intellectualism is still widespread. The obsessive mania of the slaver Ridgeway is a counterpart to what some think of law enforcement today. The show has a lot of moving parts and Jenkins, who directs each episode, does well to keep the plates going.
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The subway itself is the main fantastic element of the show, a working rail system built underground. A fictional yet physical representation of the secret network of people was developed to shelter and help refugees. However, the atrocities depicted in the narrative stem from the painful real-world events that African American slaves experienced at the time. A despicable confrontation that occurs early is eerily reminiscent of the malicious hanging sequence in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”. Not in action, but in the uninvolved contempt of those who commit the deed. Despite this element of magical realism, “Underground Railroad” solidifies itself as a kind of grown-up drama with black origins that is not only needed, but of which we see more. It’s not a Marvel crowd-pleaser. It’s far from the thrill that made trending topics their master. But unfortunately it never tries to be. And never has to be.
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Sometimes this web of science fiction and historical events from the alternate universe feels like a slight departure from Jenkins’ earlier work. The director has been clearer with his storytelling in the past, but the ambition in building the world is no less engaged. Episodes of the show feel elemental and dreamlike – the ashy landscapes in a desolate Tennessee. The warm glow of raging fires or candlelight illuminates many of the night sequences. The inviting, sunny images of a North Carolina skyscraper. Something that hadn’t happened in America at this point in the 19th century. Jenkins, along with cameraman James Laxton and the production team, has brought some distinctive work to the American landscape. The time devoted to the steampunk sci-fi aspect of the story is a little less complicated. Jenkins’ strengths lie less in some speculative fictional aspects of Whitehead’s novel than in highlighting the so-called great delusion of America – a land of prospects that is embroiled in the deep tentacles of racism, segregation, and religious paranoia that restrict the freedom of those who live there.
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With Jenkins creating his biggest project to date, it’s not just the filmmaker who has to do the heavy lifting. “Underground Railroad” offers some work at the highest level, which can be seen not only behind the cameramen of the Jenkins squad, but also convincing work from the cast. An intoxicating mix of familiar faces and loads of newly discovered talent. The wild tenacity and urgency that reigns in Thuso Mbedu’s eyes is only matched by Joel Edgerton’s simmering anger and jealousy. But even in a series in which Mbedus Cora carries a large part of the show on her shoulders, such as Arron Pierre, William Jackson Harper (“The good place”), Peter Mullan, and Lily raven shine brightly in their scenes. Special praise also goes to the young people Chase W. Dillon, whose appearance as Ridgeway’s black protégé Homer is both unsettling and unsettling. These displays are beautifully wrapped with the vibrant photography of James Laxton and the eerie, elliptical musical compositions of Nicholas Britell.
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One of the strongest episodes of the miniseries comes from the later chapters, in which a character is transported on the train and introduced to the idea of the testimony by a conductor. The show’s greatest strength lies in Jenkin’s ability to highlight the importance of that person’s story and develop empathy. This is despite the pain that has been faced. The shortest episode of the Ten, chapter seven, tugs at emotion in ways that some of the more explicit and violent chapters don’t. Cora’s story is, in a way, one of the many stories that we may never have learned to happen. It is an affirmation of Cora’s actions affecting others in ways she would not have thought possible at the beginning of the narrative. The steadfast young woman is soon motivated to leave the plantation not only for reasons of freedom, but also in a complicated desire to defeat the mother who left her.
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In order for Cora to get this far, however, she endures great pain
in their plight. “The Underground Railroad” will likely open the current one
Argument of the black pain on the screen, and the show indeed holds a fair share of
difficult sequences. “Underground Railroad” never shies away from the insidious
Nature of many people with whom Cora interacts. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study
recommended early on during a layover in South Carolina. A treacherous stay in
North Carolina resents the yellow-bellied hypocrisy that occurs on
Display. A later episode features some of the most action-packed work from Jenkins and
highlights white supremacy in its most fleeting and cold-blooded form, with a
passionate sermon and debate deftly question the place of African Americans in
America ends in violent carnage.
While “The Underground Railroad” is a show that details the dehumanization and breaking up of black bodies due to racism and slavery, unlike shows like the recent release “You,” Jenkins is not interested in a gratuitous display. Pain is treated with the kind of pathos needed for the subject. While it is true that “Them,” a racist horror anthology, was designed with perhaps different goals, “Underground Railroad” presents its case as something less wallowing in hopelessness. A small flash of luck echoes early in the narrative. Jenkins, whose ability to capture warmth and intimacy from his beautifully captured close-ups, also creates another delicate moment of love between two characters. To adjust Clair de Lune – a song that is a nice shortcut to sensitive emotions in and of itself – Jenkins shows a series of affection that goes back to his previous work. “If Beale Street could talk. “Moments of confidence may be fleeting at times, but it’s clear that Underground Railroad thinks they’re necessary and important. Cora is a person who is touched by those who are good and who pass this goodness on in the moments when she can.
All of the show’s events soon lead to a subdued climax that folds back on itself in ways that may be unexpected to viewers. It won’t come as a surprise that some are expecting something more conventional and missing out on the silent hope and tenacity that the finale brings with it. The show’s final moments, with portraits of black faces highlighted on-screen, show that Cora’s story is just one of so many that have come before. Their testimony was engraved on their faces. Given nothing. Deserved everything. An earlier episode pronounces the faces. “Our stories will always be right here.” [A-]
“The Underground Railroad” debuts May 14th on Amazon Prime.