In Barry Jenkins’s transfixing adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” Martin (Damon Herriman), a white man smuggling Cora (Thuso Mbedu) as she escapes slavery, rouses her before dawn to witness something ghastly. Along the road they’re traveling, grimly called “The Freedom Trail,” the trees are hung with lynched corpses. “You need to see this,” he tells her.
In the novel, the line is, “I wanted you to see this.” It’s a tiny change, and I don’t know how intentional it is. But it recalls a recurring issue raised by other depictions of violent oppression, from the racial horror stories of “Lovecraft Country” and “Them” to the endless replaying of George Floyd’s murder.
Who does need to see this? Who can bear to? Jenkins (“Moonlight”) has said that this sort of question gave him pause in deciding whether to make the series.
But make it he did. If you choose to watch “The Underground Railroad,” whose roughly 10 hours arrive Friday on Amazon Prime Video, yes, you will see atrocities. But you will also see humanity and resistance and love. You will see a stirring, full-feeling, technically and artistically and morally potent work, a visual tour de force worthy of Whitehead’s imaginative one.
Jenkins’s series sets its terms in the first episode. At heart, it’s an escape story; Cora and her friend Caesar (Aaron Pierre) flee a Georgia cotton plantation whose owner has a taste for grotesque punishments. One escapee is flayed and burned to death on the lawn while the owner and his guests enjoy a sunlit banquet and dancing — a vision of hell as entertainment in someone else’s heaven.
As in several recent stories — the movie “Harriet,” the series “Underground” — an abolitionist network abets Cora and Caesar’s escape. But in a magic-realist twist, this underground railroad is no metaphor. It’s a rough-hewed network that honeycombs the country, its stations ranging from grotty caverns to palatial terminals. “Just look outside as you speed through,” a railway worker tells them, “and you’ll see the true face of America.”
That face proves to be multiple and monstrous. Cora’s journey into an alternative antebellum America takes her to South Carolina, where a paternalistic regime of uplifting Black people hides sinister intentions; North Carolina, of the horrific Freedom Trail, where Black people are banned entirely, on pain of death; Tennessee, smoldering from a biblical litany of disasters; and Indiana, where free Black families nurture a tenuous prosperity. (The last setting is the series’s most idyllic, and thus its most heartbreaking.)
Comparisons with “Roots” will be inevitable, but where that mini-series explored the sweep of slavery over generations, “The Underground Railroad” zooms in on how the trauma of generations is concentrated in one mind and one body.
Cora has been beaten and abused as a matter of course. She has been alone since her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), fled the plantation when Cora was a girl. Cora has learned caution and reserve; it can be easier for her to voice her will through silence than speech. Mbedu’s magnetic performance relies as much on gesture and expression as dialogue, her every sign, flinch and defense conveying the muscle memory of terror.
At the same time, Jenkins gives “The Underground Railroad” epic scale. He and his cinematographer, James Laxton, deliver one stunning composition after another. (One repeated image, of Cora falling through an inky pit into the earth, is like religious portraiture from an old master.) “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” proved that Jenkins is gifted with intimate scenes, but his action sequences are just as striking.
On top of this cascade of sights is the most arresting TV soundscape since at least “Twin Peaks: The Return.” The audio makes this world tactile: the rasp of cicadas haunting the woods, the echoes and howling of air in subterranean tunnels, the clanking of keys and scraping of metal that impart just how heavy shackles and manacles are.
All this is more than technical wizardry; the aesthetics are inseparable from the story. Cora’s journey is one of contrasts: the breath of freedom, the terror of pursuit, the teasing possibility of safety, the reminders, everywhere, of a system of bloodthirsty cruelty.
Jenkins gets it all. It’s as if he has figured out how to funnel more feeling through a camera lens than anyone else. The world he depicts is terrible, in every dictionary sense — both horrifying and awe-striking. Like Whitehead’s novel, the series is fabulistic yet grittily real. This is a beautiful work that pretties nothing up.
Likewise, Jenkins’s artistry keeps his characters from becoming merely the sum of their pain. In between scenes, he stages still portraits — sometimes individually, sometimes en masse — as if to restore them the individuality and humanity that slavery meant to strip them of. (On Vimeo, Jenkins released a collection of the tableaux he shot, most of them not used in the series, as the 50-minute video “The Gaze.”)
Structurally, the series follows Whitehead’s design, with some expansions. Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a bounty hunter whose failure to capture Cora’s mother still obsesses him, carries much of the story as he pursues Cora. He’s as prolix as she is reserved, holding forth on Manifest Destiny to Homer (Chase W. Dillon), the dapper, chillingly composed Black boy who assists him.
Jenkins builds out Ridgeway’s story in an episode about his conflict with his idealistic father. Another episode flashes back to Mabel’s life of quiet resistance. (She tries to explain to a white overseer that a woman whose baby was stillborn is “not well”; the concept of a Black woman having a mind capable of suffering is incomprehensible to him.) At times, the series can feel digressive or sluggish, but mainly Jenkins is taking the needed time to fill in every corner of his mural.
Speaking of time: Amazon is releasing all 10 episodes at once, so you could binge them. Don’t. The series isn’t just too unsettling; it’s too visually and emotionally rich. The tightly constructed installments — 20 minutes at shortest, but most an hour or more — need time to settle, resonate and echo.
“The Underground Railroad” is telling a story of people whose lives largely went unwitnessed and unrecorded, for a time when seemingly everything is captured and broadcast, when people have become exposed nerves taking in images of anguish and outrage. We spend our days looking and looking. Jenkins’s patience and pacing is an attempt to get us, instead, to see.
It’s not up to me to dictate that you need to see “The Underground Railroad” (the kind of backhanded praise that turns great stories into homework). I won’t pretend that it’s not brutal.
But I can say that it is not only brutal. Cora carries her personal and ancestral memories of abuse on her journey. But she carries something else: a small, rattling packet of okra seeds, the germ of a plant brought by Africans to the Americas, and the last remnant of the garden her mother once tended on the plantation.
This too, is the story of “The Underground Railroad”: that on a journey through hell, hope and memory — the hardest and tiniest of pellets — can still survive.