The Underground Railroad: The Wound and the Remedy

<i>The Underground Railroad:</i> The Wound and the Remedy

Cora’s body is a poem.

When we first meet her, she is standing at a riverbank. Barren trees appear at the edges of the frame like crisp matchsticks. The water glimmers. The scene is encased in a light that is hazy, brittle, cold. At first, Cora’s small, narrow, lonely back is all that we see of her. Then she turns to the camera, which dollies in, closer and closer, as we hear her speak in voice-over: “The first and last thing my mama gave me was apologies.” Her jaw is tight with defiance, her body curved like a question mark waiting for an answer that will never arrive. It is her gaze, though, that has the most striking effect: it is so bold and unwavering that we almost want to look away, for fear of what truths such a look might reveal. Barry Jenkins’s limited series The Underground Railroad (2021) brims with powerful imagery, but its most piercing visions, including this early shot, illuminate the complexity of this woman’s life.

Cora (Thuso Mbedu) is a marked woman—marked by the bondage of slavery, the scars on her back, and the absence of her mother, who made a seemingly successful escape from their plantation before the story begins. Resentful of being left behind, the brooding Cora is deemed a monster by her community of enslaved people, as well as by freedmen and white oppressors. When the series opens, she is about to run away with an enslaved man named Caesar (Aaron Pierre), a journey that will take her from Georgia to the Carolinas and Tennessee, then finally to Indiana. All the while, the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who once hunted her mother to no avail, and Homer (Chase W. Dillon), a Black child whose freedom Ridgeway has purchased in order to mold him as an assistant, nip at her heels.

The Underground Railroad is propulsive and enveloping, and each of its chapters is haunted by the specter of death but contains a kernel of hope. Cora faces many dangers while being pursued by Ridgeway, but it is through her encounters with other Black people she meets along the way—Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), a young girl hiding in a white family’s attic; Jasper (Calvin Leon Smith), a gaunt man who starves himself as an act of resistance after being captured by Ridgeway; Royal (William Jackson Harper), a freedman who shows Cora that life can be sweet for Black folks like them—that the series illuminates the true bodily and psychic dynamics of slavery. In these interactions, we come to see Cora as much more than a canvas on which the horrors of this barbaric system are projected. She is an enslaved Black woman granted the full force of humanity, and that makes her an anomaly in this cinematic milieu. She is a woman whose very presence disrupts the common tide of the slavery epic.

Like the book on which it is based—Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 2016 novel of the same name—Jenkins’s series is a sly alternate history that hinges on a fabulist idea. Literalizing the figurative name of the secret network of routes that enslaved people traveled to flee bondage, the show envisions a real railroad hidden in subterranean passageways created by Black men, a path on which steam-engine trains transport escapees to freedom. But Jenkins and his collaborators are not dutifully faithful to their source material. Whitehead’s use of magical realism and his slippery sense of time and space are heightened by the addition of cinematic anachronisms further linking the past to the present, such as modern music (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” the Pharcyde’s “Runnin’ ”) at the end of most of the series’ ten chapters. Throughout the show, new characters are introduced while ones found in the book are deepened. Events are remixed and complicated in ways that give Cora a different brand of agency than she has on the page. In the show, Cora not only plays a more pivotal role in Ridgeway’s eventual undoing but also forms a deep romantic connection and experiences sexual intimacy, revealing a capacity for vulnerability that the novel’s protagonist, numbed by trauma, does not possess.

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