Roush Review: A Harrowing Tour of Slavery on ‘The Underground Railroad’
“If you want to see what this nation’s all about, you gotta ride the rails,” crows a station agent who welcomes aboard two desperate runaway slaves, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre). “Just look outside as you speed through and you’ll see the true face of America.”
It’s not a pretty face, to put it mildly, and the subterranean train — the invention of Colson Whitehead from his searing Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Underground Railroad — is a macabre manifestation of the pipeline of clandestine homes that once carried slaves to freedom.
Caesar’s prize possession is a contraband edition of Gulliver’s Travels, but a more appropriate metaphor for this grueling 10-part limited-series adaptation would be Dante’s Inferno. These passengers soon learn there’s no safe haven in a nation that abides slavery. For Cora, played with a blazing quiet intensity by the South African Mbedu, each stop introduces her to a new circle of hell and the terrifying prospect of being captured and returned to the pitiless Georgia plantation of her birth.
The Underground Railroad, the most powerful and devastating depiction of slavery on TV since the groundbreaking Roots, is directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) with a mournful sensitivity that’s somehow lyrical as well as brutal, almost making the most graphic sequences bearable. Cora’s story of survival unfolds as an episodic journey, alternately surreal and hyper-real, that hardens her soul, forcing her to repress emotions like love and hope that could betray her. She knows about abandonment, having been left behind by her mother, who became a legend when she ran off and was never found by ruthless slave-catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton).
He’s determined not to repeat his mistake with Cora, and with diminutive former-slave sidekick Homer (scene-stealer Chase W. Dillon) as his mystifyingly loyal companion, Ridgeway relentlessly pursues her on behalf of “the American imperative.”
Cora’s adventures include participating in a living museum, where she dons an African costume as part of a bizarre exhibit in a seemingly progressive South Carolina town, and sheltering in a sweltering attic in a North Carolina burg where Blacks are outlawed and their hanging corpses line a “freedom trail.” Images like these are hard to shake. As they should be.
The Underground Railroad, Limited Series Premiere, Friday, May 14, Prime Video