Photo: ‘The Underground Railroad’/Amazon
From the mind of Colson Whitehead, author of the New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, comes a new ten-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by the viewpoint and vision of Barry Jenkins, the show tells a similar tale as its preceding book, adding beautiful imagery to the words and stories written down by Whitehead. Director and teleplay writer Barry Jenkins is known for his love of unique cinematography and shot composition, from his award-winning films, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’
Jenkins has routinely shown a gaze into the black community in times of oppression in modern days, whether that be in the civil rights era or in the 21st century, but the period piece of this series gives Jenkins a new challenge of which, judging by its pilot episode, he has successfully overcome. This is a review of the first episode of a ten-part series: Amazon Prime Videos ‘The Underground Railroad.’
‘The Underground Railroad’ – Using Setting as a Protagonist
Set in 19th century Georgia, the series follows two slaves on the plantation, Cora and Ceaser. Cora is the daughter of Mabel, a slave who escaped and left her only child alone with no family and no hope. Caesar, an educated, literate slave, who, after being transferred to Cora’s plantation, uses his small dose of hope left to make a plan to escape using the rumored underground railroad with Cora, relying on his white accomplice, Fletcher. The series, like the book, crosses the threshold of historical fantasy, as the analogous and famed underground railroad takes on the form of a literal railroad, escorting slaves to freedom by way of a coal-powered steam engine.
In the pilot episode, the audience is introduced mainly not to any character, but to the plantation. This gives us a feel of the inner workings of not only the slaves but the masters. Jenkins drops us in the middle of the cotton fields, he puts us in the cabins and, terrifyingly, in the crowd of slaves, as we watch one of their own, who was brought in after attempting to flee for freedom, get whipped and burned at the stake. Not ever holding back with the gore and terror of slavery, the feeling of watching a horror movie is overtaken by the frightening reality that this was real life for hundreds of years, making it oh-so-much worse.
Cinematography Telling a Story
As an adaptation, the one thing that readers miss when indulging a story in a novel format is imagery. Luckily, that is a realm at which director Barry Jenkins shines. Shot on location in Georgia, the pilot episode features some of the most stunning shots to date in film and TV alike. The natural beauty of the scenery is harshly contrasted by the gruesome and horrific imagery of the story. The opening shots prepare us for a descent into the everyday lives of Black-Americans in 19th century Georgia. The show opens with a slow-motion shot of Cora falling down a deep and dark void, with no floor in sight.
This foreshadows the darkness that is not only evocative of the treatment and lives of the slaves that we are about to enter, but the subterranean journey they will embark on to leave that life behind. The most memorable aspect of the pilot was the cinematography. The way that Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton (who worked on Jenkins’ feature films) sit with each shot, never rushing a frame, never too eager to move on to the next object of focus, is a unique and beautiful way to introduce one to a world.
Visual storytelling and film literacy are his specialties, and the way that the characters are framed in a tight shot, letting you see every crevice and pore, every inconsistency on their faces, connects the audience with the characters in a way that words cannot. This is not only used to humanize and connect with the protagonists; Jenkins and Laxton use this with the antagonists too, in this case, the slave owners.
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In this context, the up-close-and-personal shots make you feel uneasy like your space is being invaded, and when Ridgeway stares into Cora’s eyes and grabs her, and we see him staring into the camera, it gives a personal feeling of discomfort; a brilliantly artistic device to divide victim from villain. As the victim of this tale, when we are first shown Cora, the camera on a crane glides into a close-up, but her fearful gaze literally pushes the camera away, warning the viewers to be frightened, to prepare for the terror they are about to witness.
The First Hour of Many
The first chapter, much like in a book, is mostly to set up what is in store for the characters ahead in their journey. The world-building and story composition is already mesmerizing in the first hour of the program. The first episode of this series is called “Georgia” because that was established as the main character so far. In order to understand, to even begin to grasp the reality of what the people go through in this diegesis, we have to first be familiar with their home.
The performances are already of standout quality for Cora’s Thuso Mbedu and Chase Dillon, who plays a child slave by the name of Homer, and there are so many characters who we have yet to meet. The costume design, makeup, and special effects/ prosthetics are inspired as they do not hold back using every possible method to immerse the viewer into the protagonists’ nightmare. And that is what Barry Jenkins does and what he has successfully done time and time again. Even though his films and content range in era and plotline, he continuously finds ways to capture the beauty and struggle of real-life while sharing an intimate story of Black-American strife in the US.
Personally, I cannot wait to finish the series. In one hour, they have set the scene for a fascinating story to tell, leaving visual clues to questions that will be answered as the story unfolds. Sometimes, you can just tell how much thought and care has been put into a project, but with Jenkins, that passion is unwavering. I have a feeling that it will be a riveting nine hours. I recommend you take the time to appreciate this artwork.
Cast: Thuso Mbedu, Chase Dillon, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Pierre
Cinematography: James Laxton
Directors: Barry Jenkins | Writers: Jihan Crowther, Colson Whitehead, Barry Jenkins | Producers: Mark Ceryak, Dede Gardner, Richard Heus, Jaqueline Hoyt, Barry Jenkins, Jeremy Kleiner, Sara Murphy, Brad Pitt, Adele Romanski
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Samuel James Parven is an avid fan of all things entertainment and pop culture, who shines in reviewing the hidden gems of Hollywood. Samuel is fascinated by the direct correlation between media and culture. If art imitates life and vice versa, Samuel focuses on highlighting the ways that the entertainment industry and their consumers alike can improve our interpersonal world through the content with which we engage. With the aligned values of Hollywood Insider to focus on positivity and growth, Samuel is a passionate writer hoping to pen his takes on how to add more substance and inclusivity to the industry we love so much.