Martin Carr reviews The Underground Railroad…
Oscar-winning writer director Barry Jenkins comes to Amazon with a story of conflicting cultural identity and social intolerance. Adapted from the novel by Colson Whitehead, who serves as an executive producer alongside both Barry Jenkins and Brad Pitt, The Underground Railroad pulls no punches. Caesar (Aaron Pierce) and Cora (Thuso Mbedu) serve as the eyes and ears to an audience invited into this visceral experience.
Not since Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, has a main stream piece of art tried to tackle the topic of colour blindness in America with such fervour. What this series exposes is casual inhumanity, indifferent degradation and a complete loss of identity felt by those of colour. Slavery is rarely mentioned in those opening episodes, yet a sense of ownership is implicit through the fear which is manifested through malicious punishments.
From the outset, production designer Mark Friedberg ensures atmosphere, oppression and squalor are tangible on screen. Much of this is achieved in juxtaposition to the opulence surrounding those who are not defined by skin colour. Barely habitable wooden huts serve as shelter, offering no privacy or indication of comfort for those who live there. During the plantation sequences especially, cattle are given more deference than those who work alongside them.
In its opening three hours each episode bears the name of a different state. Starting in Georgia and moving through the Carolinas, various degrees of civilisation are offered up for examination. Open minded liberal thinkers sit alongside those with barbarous beliefs and medieval motivations. At every turn Caesar and Cora adapt to those who might wish them harm or offer some help. There is no avoiding the allegorical overtones, as touchstones of classic literature including Gulliver’s Travels and The Odyssey tie into this journeyman narrative.
Ulterior motives, social agendas and personal prejudice all play a part in constantly altering the identity of our central protagonists. What is given with one hand gets taken away with another, as Caesar and Cora find themselves continually in flux. More than anything, The Underground Railroad feels like a history lesson designed to remind, educate and enlighten those who might not know better.
This show is there to shine a light on an uncomfortable time in American history. One that teachers might feel less than willing to share in a classroom. A recent study revealed that sixty three percent of Americans under forty were unaware six million Jews died in the Holocaust. This finding points towards a basic lack of understanding and worse still a lack of interest in learning.
From that it would be fair to say that The Underground Railroad is as much a historical document as dramatisation of fictionalised events. This is why film makers like Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins are so important. Their desire to educate audiences should never be overlooked. That is what this series seeks to do by reminding people that inhumanity in man is something to be learned from, not ignored, neutered or watered down. Only by being fully aware of our frailties and failings can people ever hope to evolve. If that one lesson alone can be taken away from this piece of television, then one small victory will have been achieved.
The Underground Railroad premieres on Amazon Prime Video May 14th.