Barry Jenkins Details the ‘Mythic Storytelling’ of ‘The Underground Railroad’

The Underground Railroad William Jackson Harper
Amazon Studios

The Underground Railroad is much more than a metaphor in this memorable limited series, which director and Oscar-winning writer Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) based on Colson Whitehead’s critically acclaimed 2016 bestseller.

Instead of a succession of safe houses, this escape route for fugitive enslaved people heading north to safety is a literal subterranean rail line. While the series is full of compelling characters, it’s the harrowing journey of young Cora Randall (South African actress Thuso Mbedu) after she escapes a Georgia plantation that remains at the show’s heart.

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Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel becomes a 10-part limited series directed by Barry Jenkins ('Moonlight').

Cora boards the train “not only to gain her freedom,” Jenkins explains, but also to seek understanding about her mother, who abandoned her as a child. On her dangerous travels in antebellum America, she encounters hate and duplicity but also some kindness among the various people she meets, both Black and white.

Providing constant danger: bounty hunter Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones), who tracks the young woman with the obsession of Les Misérables’ Inspector Javert pursuing Jean Valjean.

The Underground Railroad Joel Edgerton

(Credit: Amazon Studios)

Jenkins calls this fictionalized version of history “mythic storytelling,” which he hopes will help viewers see the characters as more than victims. “Cora Randall,” says Jenkins, “is as worthy of going on a journey as Superman or Wonder Woman.” As the saying goes, some heroes don’t wear capes.

The Underground Railroad, Series Premiere, Friday, May 14, Amazon Prime Video