Sarah Gonzalez: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Sarah Gonzalez in for Tanzina Vega. On Friday, director Barry Jenkin's miniseries, Adaptation of the Colson Whitehead novel, The Underground Railroad, premieres on Amazon Prime. Both the book and the series center around Cora, an enslaved woman who escapes from a plantation in Georgia and travels through a literal underground train system in search of freedom.
While the series does depict the traumatic reality of slavery, early reviews have lauded it for not sensationalizing the violence shown on screen as well as for emphasizing the humanity of the enslaved characters.
Much of the project's success can be credited to Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Moonlight and If Beale StreetCouldTalk. Here he is on The Takeaway back in 2018 talking about his plans for The UndergroundRailroad.
Barry Jenkins: The most clear thing I can say about it is there's a hero's journey. I remember as a kid hearing about The Underground Railroad for the first time and really, literally imagining choo choo trains running underground. I think that reading Colson's book reactivated that childhood awe around just the power or the ingenuity of Black folks to create this path to freedom.
I thought the best way to tell that was to go on the full hero's journey. I was really happy to partner with Amazon and find a place where we could tell the story over the course of 8, 9, 10 hours.
Sarah Gonzalez: For more on the miniseries, I am joined now by Robert Daniels, contributing film critic to Polygon,The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Robert, thanks for being here.
Robert Daniels: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for having me on.
Sarah Gonzalez: For people who are less familiar with The Underground Railroad, the book and the miniseries, will you just quickly summarize the story for us?
Robert Daniels: Yes. The Underground Railroad is basically an art history that's set during Antebellum South in Georgia. It follows Cora, who's played by Thuso Mbedu. She's a slave who was abandoned by her mom who, apparently, has run off the plantation over a decade ago. No one knows where she went, not even Cora, and Cora feels like an outcast, even on the plantation.
At some point, Cora meets a southern slave named Caesar who's played by Aaron Pierre. Caesar tells her of an underground railroad, a physical railroad, not just a practical railroad but a physical railroad that's underground with trains and station houses and station masters. He says he knows where there's a station house, and if she wants to, she can run with him and he wants her because she's good luck because her mom got away. They go and journey away from the plantation. That journey toward freedom is the literal backbone of The Underground Railroad.
Sarah Gonzalez: You wrote in your review that the first episode of the series was the hardest for you to stomach, why was that?
Robert Daniels: The premiere entitled Georgia definitely left me wary. It's gorgeously shot and near celestial lighting. The score is wonderfully calibrated, and yet, lots of the violence feels so surreal. Without spoiling the episode, the brutality goes beyond the gruesome practice of lynching. It's so real to the point. It's spectacle to a point too. It's as though Jenkins, from the very beginning, throws us into the deep end so that we might swim to a later calm.
While the calm does come, especially in the later scenes, what I like to call Cora's flight to freedom, I would be lying if I didn't say that the first 30 minutes of the premiere didn't give me pause for how violent it was.
Sarah Gonzalez: Did it change after the first episode?
Robert Daniels: Yes, the series definitely becomes calmer. We get into Cora's journey toward freedom and really it turns into, one, a love story between her and Caesar, and later, there's another love story that develops between her and Royal who's an officer on the Underground Railroad, played by William Jackson Harper.
Then it also goes into Cora's relationship to her mother. We never really see her mother except in flashbacks, but her presence is always there. It really becomes a discussion of a mother-daughter relationship that's been frayed, because Cora doesn't know how to fix it, but she wants to fix it.
Sarah Gonzalez: The thing that's really different about this story is there's a literal Underground Railroad, which I think is what children, especially, think of when they first learn about The Underground Railroad. How does the series visually depict this railway system that Cora travels on? What was it like watching it?
Robert Daniels: It really was as Barry Jenkins describe, I grew up with also the thought of a literal underground railroad. There's this place where people go to, it's like the CTA here in Chicago and they get on the train that takes them to freedom and that's just how it works.
That's almost how Barry Jenkins visualizes it. It's so fantastical and so magical. The train is depicted as almost alive. It's like this energy that's driving it toward the people who most need it.
There's not really a timetable or a schedule. No one knows when these trains are going to arrive, when they're departing, but each station has a station master, and they have a book where you have to tell your story in order to get onto the train. The train is almost carrying the message or the history of Black people from station to station.
The physical train itself, which is, I believe, Jenkins said that they actually found a private railway system and literally, physically, built the cave walls around it. It's tactile, it's real. Some of the station houses are just in caves, some of them look like New York City subway stations and wood tile mosaics and stuff like that. The production design of this is so fantastic and feels so lived in.
Sarah Gonzalez: Nice. You wrote in your review that in movies and television shows about slavery, there's usually a lot of pain and suffering and violence depicted, sensational violence. There are things this series accomplishes that you hadn't really seen before in a movie or show about slavery, what were they?
Robert Daniels: I think what I had seen accomplished was that Barry Jenkins found a humanistic lens to look through, rather than so much-- I don't want to be vapid and call it a white lens or say that he avoids a white lens or that he tries to find a Black tenor to speak through, but I think he finds a very human tenor to speak through.
Brit Bennett, who's the author of TheVanishingHouse said a few months ago on Twitter that a lot of the Jordan Peele knockoffs are so bad because they're made by people who thought the horror of Get Out was the Armitages, when in fact, it was the sunken place.
I think that's a wonderful approximation for why these works tend to fail. They oppose the slave master and the horrendous actions is an object of interest. Because they do that, we only see it through that lens, and so we can only see Black people as less than human, whereby the sum total of the existence amounts to the pain they must endure to find freedom.
I think if you think about it through the horror being the sunken place like in Get Out, in Get Out, the sunken place is really about Chris's regret over the loss of his mother. It's a very tangible emotion. I think Jenkins accomplishes the same with The Underground Railroad by crassness love story for Cora and Caesar. How often, really, do we see love stories in slave narratives? And by exploring the anger and sense of abandonment Cora feels toward her mother.
While the specter of Ridgeway, who's played by Joel Edgerton, who's a slave catcher who's hunting Cora, is there, we never really depart from the very humanist image of Cora as a living, breathing entity first.
Sarah Gonzalez: Robert Daniels is a contributing film critic to Polygon, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Robert, thank you so much for joining us.
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