'The Underground Railroad' Review: A work of immense beauty and pain

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review 

By Murtaza Ali Khan 

The opening line of the Preamble of the United States Declaration of Independence emphatically reads, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yes, it is one of the most important documents in human history, but unfortunately when it says that “all men are equal” it merely implies the White people. While referring to the contradiction between the aforementioned claim that "all men are created equal" and the existence of slavery in the United States, English abolitionist Thomas Day famously wrote, "If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.” In the 19th century, the Declaration took on a special significance for the abolitionist movement.

The Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins unequivocally addresses the above contradiction in the opening episode of his 10-part Amazon Prime Video series The Underground Railroad in a chilling sequence wherein a Black slave is being mercilessly punished for trying to run away from a cotton plantation by his White master in the antebellum American South. “You’ve hardly touched your food, Mr. Churchill,” the slaver inquires his guest. “Oh, pardon me, but I don’t understand how one can eat… while a man’s flesh is being ripped from his body,” the guest hesitantly replies. “Well, Mr. Churchill, your first mistake… uh, a nigger and a man are two entirely different things. A man can think, reason and love. Niggers simply do not have the capacity for such things. As such, it is important to provide them with restrictions and directions on how to comport themselves. And when these restrictions and directions are not abided by, it is just as important to make an example of them,” the slaver avers.

As disturbing as these words may sound today, they correctly sum up the bigotry, prejudice, and sadistic cruelty with which the White Supremacists treated their Black slaves back in the day. Kudos to Barry Jenkins and his team of writers for not trying to use euphemisms as it is a piece of oft-forgotten history that needs to be told, especially today when movements like Black Lives Matter are paving the way for new conversations about racism and equality. The Underground Railroad, based on a 2016 Pulitzer winning alternative history novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead, follows two slaves, Cora and Caesar, who try and escape from a cotton plantation in the deep southern state of Georgia. They are chased by a ruthless slave catcher named Arnold Ridgeway who will stop at nothing in order to complete his task. Cora and Caesar’s only hope is the Underground Railroad—a rail transport system with safe houses and secret routes operated by a network of abolitionists to help the enslaved African-Americans escape to freedom.

The Underground Railroad is nothing like anything that you would have ever seen before. There is such blood curdling brutality on display that you would wish that you could somehow personally help these poor men and women suffering because of being caught in the throes of slavery. If you think that you have already seen the worst side of slavery in films such as 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, just wait till you see a horrifying execution of a Black slave at the hands of his White master in first episode of the series. The episode (as well as the series on a whole) depicts some deeply disturbing scenes that are not meant for the faint-hearted.

But, thankfully, the USP of the series is not the sadistic cruelty that's on display. Yes, the source material is brilliant but more than anything it is Barry Jenkins who makes the series absolutely breathtaking to watch despite all the gore and brutality. He makes every frame look like a painting (credit must also go to cinematographer James Laxton, his frequent collaborator). Jenkins and Laxton employ a technique wherein they frequently show characters standing still before the camera while looking at us. Not to mention the immersive sound design by his regular composer Nicholas Britell who ingeniously blends his beautiful score with the real sounds of footsteps, cracking of the whip, rustling of the wind, crackling of the fire, churn of the steam engine, ticking of the clocks, neighing of the horses, trilling of the crickets, chirping of the birds, and buzzing of the flies to create a poignant symphony of emotions that help create a sense of heightened realism brilliantly contrasting with sparsely used moments of magic realism.     

Jenkins yet again succeeds in eliciting wonderful performances from his actors. Remember, he gave us a film like Moonlight only 5 years ago. And now he brings to us a sprawling series (it’s been four years in the making) which brings us face to face with a mostly unseen side of the antebellum American South, oozing with nostalgia, revulsion, fear, and hope that’s beautifully laced with magic realism. Here is a work of immense beauty and pain that cannot just be watched, for it needs to be felt first and experienced.

A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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