The Underground Railroad

By Joanna Langfield

This series is simply stunning, in ways that are anything but simple.

Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning fantasy, Barry Jenkins delivers a masterwork that is as essential historically as it is of this moment. The story of Cora, a runaway slave who takes to the underground railroad, is as painful as it is revealing. Perhaps many of us were taught, if we were taught at all, of a mythical railroad, a network of well-meaning (undoubtedly white) folk, helping the southern enslaved escape to the north. It was an adventure. And maybe it was presented in a somewhat romantic light.

Whitehead’s unflinching novel blew all that away. Terrified human beings were running for their lives. There were brave people who helped along the way, but the truly brave were the desperate. Their almost impossible journey was anything but an adventure. And surely not romantic. Cora, along with her fellow travelers, moves from place to place in darkness, fending off enemies and threats, real and imagined. Most notably in Cora’s case is Ridgeway, the bounty hunter determined, for reasons of his own, to bring her, as rightful property, back to her owner.

Every member of the cast is spot on, but the show really is between a terrific Joel Edgerton and a glorious Thuso Mbedu, a South African actress making an international splash here. Still, the true star is Jenkins, who doesn’t just mount the novel, but enhances it. His breathtakingly beautiful style makes a fascinating contrast to the brutality we see throughout, underscoring the humanity so many others ignored and touching a righteous anger he’s only hinted at before.

And then we get to chapter 9. I won’t spoil anything here, but if this epic drama is a triumph (and it is), chapter 9 is, both alone and as part of the whole, a masterpiece, shattering, aware and heartbreakingly relevant. I hope you will watch the series, both for its artistic glory and its resolute reminder of our American story.