CURATORS' CHOICE 2021:
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
CHAPTERS 1–5: December 31, 2021, 12:30 P.M.
CHAPTERS 6–10: January 1, 2022, 12:30 P.M.
United States. 2021, 305 mins. DCP. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Cinematography by James Laxton. Music by Nicholas Britell. Production design by Mark Friedberg. With Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon, Joel Edgerton, Fred Hechinger, Peter Mullan, Mychal-Bella Bowman, Sheila Atim.
Review by Robert Daniels, RogerEbert.com, May 14, 2021
After directing the meditative Medicine for Melancholy, the Best Picture–winning Moonlight, and the sumptuous If Beale Street Could Talk—Barry Jenkins could have opted for less demanding material. Very few would have blamed him. In a climate weary of trauma, he instead chose the riskiest bet—a slave narrative. “The Underground Railroad,” adapted by Jenkins from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel, is a ten-hour fantastical epic following Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a Georgia slave, who with Caesar (Aaron Pierre), escapes from their antebellum plantation toward freedom by way of real locomotives, in real tunnels, with real stationhouses.
Cora’s ten-episode journey finds her evading capture from ruthless slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his young Black protégé Homer (Chase Dillon) by traversing glittering states, apocalyptic landscapes, and Edenic countrysides. All the while she wrestles with love and loss, and the deep-seeded anger she holds against her mother for abandoning her all those years ago. These humanistic themes are why The Underground Railroad succeeds where other slave narratives have failed: The show addresses these characters as living, breathing people first. Not merely as magnets for dehumanization and brutalization.
In addition to the miniseries, through Vimeo, Jenkins shared a 50-minute prologue entitled The Gaze. The short non-narrative film affectingly presents a series of tableaux wherein individual slaves—portrayed by the show’s vast number of talented extras—unflinchingly stand in fields with resoluteness and sometimes joy. It is the Black gaze captured to startling effect. The two projects also reteam the Moonlight director with longtime collaborators composer Nicholas Brittell and cinematographer James Laxton for the trio’s most enlivening work yet.
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