The Underground Railroad Centers the People, Not the Condition of Enslavement — That's Huge

Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s bestseller of the same name, wastes no time in illustrating the tragic horrors of enslavement. Amazon’s miniseries opens with scenes of languish and pain, showing the flogging of a woman and child — I had to pause several times while watching just to catch my breath. Jenkins attempts to shed light through the imagery and cinematography; however, it fails to overshadow the cumulative darkness of the institution of enslavement’s mental and physical destruction of Black bodies. Hollywood has of course depicted enslavement in TV and film before (2013’s 12 Years a Slave, 2020’s Antebellum, etc.), however, what makes The Underground Railroad different is its focus on the people as fully developed characters, and not the condition of enslavement itself. The characters are presented as real, layered, complex, with the ability to express hope, anger, love, pain, and agency — conveyed in both words and silence.

The story follows Cora (brilliantly played by Thuso Mbedo) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) who escape from their plantation in Georgia to a literal railroad in search of freedom, heading North. As Cora attempts to live a life free of bondage, she soon discovers that enslavement is still manifesting in cruel ways, even when off the plantation. With each stop on the underground railroad, Cora experiences what researcher and professor Dr. Joy Degruy calls Post Traumatic Slave Disorder (PTSS), a condition detailing the residual effect and multigenerational impact of chattel enslavement on Black communities.

As America experiences a racial reckoning a year following the brutal murder of George Floyd, Jenkins feels ready to engage us in a conversation on the legacy of enslavement beyond that of historical fact. As Jenkins offers in his director’s note, “The need to tell the truth without being devoured by the barbarity of that truth . . . is the hardest undertaking I have ever attempted in my creative life.” Jenkins’s need to tell this truth does not minimize the fullness of the characters, where even as the viciousness of enslavement unfolds on screen, we do not lose sight of Cora as a woman, daughter, and human being.

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