Film director Barry Jenkins knows “The Underground Railroad” will be hard to watch. That’s the point.
The Amazon Prime series, based on Colton Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name and premiering Friday, depicts the brutal, violent story of slavery, with on-camera whippings, shootings and burnings. The n-word flows freely, brandished with a callous evil that feels impossible to comprehend. Jenkins wouldn’t have made it any other way.
“I think for quite a long time, we’ve grown accustomed to these images arriving to us from a certain point of view and with a certain lack of verisimilitude, a certain lack of truth, so I think the skepticism is justified. I think, as artists, we can only create the images that we feel are within us to create and then put them into the world and hope that folks will see something new or illuminating,” said Jenkins, who first optioned the novel in 2016, before the wild success of his best-known film, “Moonlight.”
At the center of “Underground Railroad” is a young Black girl, Cora (Thuso Mbedu), who lives on a Georgia cotton plantation. She escapes her sadistic master (Benjamin Walker) to find the long-fabled railroad. In Whitehead’s novel as well as Jenkins’ version, it’s an actual railroad that shuttles escaped slaves to freedom, or the closest they can find in a country overrun by power-hungry white people.
Cora’s journey takes her to South Carolina, where a seeming utopia is poisoned from the inside, to North Carolina, where she and another slave girl, Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), are stashed in an attic, to Tennessee and to Indiana, constantly running and hiding.
The entire time, a vindictive slave catcher, played by Joel Edgerton, is on her tail, hunting Cora and also trying to make up for failing to catch her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), when she escaped years ago. For him, capturing Cora is as much about revenge as it is about returning a slave to her rightful place.
“At the heart of this story is resistance rather than endurance,” William Jackson Harper, who plays Royal, a freeborn Black man, told the Daily News. “It’s not about waiting for slavery to stop; this is a story of a woman who’s like, ‘I’m changing my circumstances and screw all of y’all.’”
Jenkins, who directed all 10 episodes and wrote or co-wrote several, spins a visually breathtaking journey with longtime collaborator cinematographer James Laxton — taking viewers through the seedy underbelly of U.S. history.
“I was able to see the story of the enslaved body, of the Black oppressed body, in a completely different light because with each new episode, we’re seeing something we haven’t seen the Black body go through,” said Mbedu, who plays Cora with a quiet and steadfast indignation.
“It didn’t feel like a voyeuristic, putting-the-Black-body-on-display thing.”
Jenkins calls “The Underground Railroad” a passion project, but he talks about it as if he feels a responsibility to use his voice “to create something that told the story of my ancestors.”
“Some of these images can be very triggering for an audience. I also knew that there’s an aspect of this period in American history that it sometimes feels like the country doesn’t want to acknowledge,” he said.
“One of the really beautiful things about this process was to recontextualize who I feel my ancestors are in the public consciousness and maybe to create or provide a new way of looking at them, because the alternative is to ignore that they never existed and I don’t think that’s acceptable. I do think we have to keep creating images in their image.”
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