What Sets Amazon’s The Underground Railroad Apart From Other Slavery Stories

Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios

What does freedom sound like? For Barry Jenkins, the answer started with the Earth. While filming The Underground Railroad, the new limited series adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the director was caught off guard by a rumbling beneath his feet. The source was a nearby construction site, but to Jenkins, the vibration felt like a train was passing under him. It reminded him of how, as a boy, he had thought the historical Underground Railroad involved actual locomotives.  

Whitehead’s book, like Jenkins’s childhood mind, takes a similarly literal approach to depicting the network of secret passageways and safe houses that American abolitionists used to help enslaved Black people reach free states. The protagonist, Cora, discovers a real train system that aids her in her perilous escape from Georgia. Colossal and unpredictable, this Underground Railroad snakes beneath slaveholding states, and is carved directly into the land. By homing in on the ways the earth shapes the characters’ stories, Jenkins’s adaptation adds visual and sonic texture to Whitehead’s magical-realist vision—anchoring it in the concreteness of place and highlighting overlooked truths about enslaved people’s experiences.

If the obvious antagonist in any slavery narrative is the ruthless master, then the land is his most menacing sentinel. In films and TV shows that follow enslaved characters lurching toward freedom (such as Harriet) or being forced into servitude (such as 12 Years a Slave), the plantation is a site of unrelenting pain; the surrounding thickets serve primarily as a roadblock to freedom. (WGN’s Underground opened its first episode with its characters dashing through the hostile woods) Whitehead’s novel complicates that paradigm, and Jenkins’s adaptation brings the environment into even sharper focus. The series, which is streaming today on Amazon, doesn’t cast nature solely as a problem to be solved or a threat to be overcome. Rather, The Underground Railroad weaves all the complexities of the landscape—its terrain, its sounds, its emotional significance—directly into the story.

Read: Who wants to watch black pain?

Though at times wrenching, especially in the first episode, the series avoids gratuitous or heavy-handed visuals of blood, sweat, and tears—the usual signs of life in slavery narratives. Dense and expansive, it draws inspiration from fire, air, and fauna. “I wanted to convey a very beautiful relationship between our ancestors and the land,” Jenkins told me. Part of how The Underground Railroadshows that spiritual communion is via the intimate, light-filled cinematography famously associated with Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton. Aesthetically, the series alternates between tableaus that evoke Romantic-era paintings and Impressionistic references.

Take, for example, the whiplash of its first minutes: After viewers witness the agony of childbirth, they see Cora (played by Thuso Mbedu) standing in a dark swamp. The show cuts from this foreboding scene to one of her standing in a luminous field with Caesar (Aaron Pierre), a man enslaved on the same plantation. The golden-hour light frames their faces and the crops around them as he asks her to try and escape with him. In that moment, even as Cora balks, one can almost imagine the shimmering leaves and singing cicadas ushering the pair to safety. (To the show’s composer, Nicholas Britell, the insects’ chorus vitally captured the sound of the air and inspired the music: “There are pieces within the score … where you hear remnants of some of the cicadas,” Britell told me. “One of the pieces actually … is me playing violins and a prepared piano that almost sounds like cicadas.”)

In moments such as the opening sequence, The Underground Railroad echoes the ethereal beauty of Kasi Lemmons’s 1997 classic, Eve’s Bayou. And like Lemmons’s story about a Lousiana Creole family’s mythic undoing, The Underground Railroad sometimes revels in the grandeur of nature to more eerie effect. By drawing on elements of fantasy, the series actually deepens the real-life atrocities it depicts. To Jenkins, there’s nothing contradictory about this approach. “Whether that’s representing Tuskegee experiments, eugenics, the sterilization of Black women, or the Oregon exclusionary acts, that had to be truth-based,” he said of the story’s references to other real-life horrors. “And yet it could be housed within this historical fiction or magical realism.”

Read: Eight films to watch right now, according to Barry Jenkins

In Whitehead’s novel, the improbable conceit of the train allows for commentary on the ubiquity of Black people’s exploitation. When Cora and Caesar descend into a subterranean railroad stop early in the book, she marvels at the “tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables.” She asks the station agent who built it. “Who builds anything in this country?” he responds. Whitehead’s descriptions of the labor required to construct this chimeric locomotive are rhythmic, almost imitating the syncopated carving of the land. So when the drilling near the show’s set unexpectedly recreated that feeling, Jenkins quickly sent an audio recording to Britell. “I always had this idea of the sound of this digging, the sound of this drill,” Jenkins said. “I just knew we’re going to film this scene, and then Nick and I are gonna take these pickaxes hitting this rock, and we’re gonna make music out of it.” The pair would come back to the same theme again and again while scoring The Underground Railroad: letting nature, in all its glory and danger, guide the story. “That was the starting point of that idea,” Britell said. “What would it mean to explore this elemental force of going downward into the Earth?”

Caesar (played by Aaron Pierre) and Cora (Thuso Mbedu) discover a real train system that aids in their escape from a plantation in Georgia. (Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios)

The first state Cora reaches after setting out from Georgia is South Carolina, which seems like a paragon of safety upon her arrival. But she and Caesar soon discover that a sinister experiment is under way, one that parallels some of the bodily horror that Black Americans have suffered throughout history. Jenkins and Britell don’t use cacophonous sounds to simply mirror the dread Cora begins to feel. (“If you’re seeing something that seems strange, then you’re hearing something strange, it’s almost too direct a relationship,” Britell said.) Instead, the duo experimented with the score to create dissonance and subtly distort viewers’ perceptions of South Carolina’s promise. “Those different states require different musical landscapes,” Britell said, explaining that in South Carolina, “there’s this almost fantastically lush orchestra sound there, which, to us, raised that kind of question mark.”

The Underground Railroad is set in five states, and the episodes are titled after their respective locales. But the entire show was filmed in Georgia. “There’s a certain mythmaking or a certain lying inherent in that—we’re telling you you’re in Indiana, but we’re also in Georgia,” Jenkins said. The process of finding locations in Georgia to serve as convincing stand-ins for the show’s other settings was arduous; Jenkins joked that he can’t have seen every square mile of the state, but at times it felt as though he had. “We only didn’t touch the southwestern corner of the state,” he said. “Everywhere else, we filmed something in an effort to get this variation in the topography and the landscape.”

The series uses that aesthetic meticulousness in service of its larger points about enslaved people’s humanity, including their unique knowledge of the land. Knowing the Earth under one’s feet well enough to map one’s way to safety is no small accomplishment. “So much of this for me was about being the kid hearing the words Underground Railroad and literally seeing Black people on trains underground—not imagining them, like, seeing them,” Jenkins said. “My granddad was a longshoreman. I would see him put his hard hat on, his tool belt, and his boots, and go to work every day. And I thought, Oh, people like him built the Underground Railroad.”

At times, the show beautifully emphasizes the ways their bonds with the land persisted—and persist even now—beyond the specter of forced labor. The last episode features a weighty burial scene, one of the moments when Jenkins actually cried during filming. “This actor … at the conclusion of the scene, without my prompting, he got down on his knees, and he puts his forehead to the soil, and he inhales the earth,” Jenkins recalled. “And I thought there was just something so, so deeply spiritual about it. And there was something so visceral, this connection between this person and the Earth; it wasn’t corrupted by the condition of American slavery.”

All Rights Reserved for Hannah Giorgis

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