The Underground Railroad will leave a Hole in your Heart


Mahawa Bangoura/

The new TV show incorporates the Underground Railroad as a literal train line, while retaining much of its historical importance.

   When we think about the Underground Railroad, the first person who likely comes to mind is the courageous 5’2—but larger than life—Harriet Tubman. However, in Barry Jenkins’ historical drama series The Underground Railroad, the readers meet a different protagonist.

   Jenkins, who directed the Best Picture-winning film Moonlight, adapts Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name into a ten-episode television show that premiered on Amazon Prime Video on May 14, 2020. Cora (played by Thuso Mbedu), is a vigorous plantation slave in the deep south of Georgia, who reluctantly escapes the clutches of slavery to the north with a new coming slave, Caesar (Aaron Pierre) only to discover further tragedies upon her adventures.

   Jenkins’ four and a half years of work reimagines the Underground Railroad as a literal construct with functioning trains, conductors, and engineers. The audience immediately gets sucked into the show as they receive a front row view of the colorful, crisp, imagery that transports you to the bitter, daunting 1800’s. Cinematographer James Laxton does an incredible job at capturing the actors’ raw emotions along with the beauty of nature, such as the blazing, orange sun setting behind Cora as the other slaves gather to laugh and sing amidst the agony in their lives. 

   Through the network of actual trains, Cora is taken from Georgia, to the Carolinas, and Tennessee,  witnessing America’s harrowing history. Black men are poisoned with “medicine” that makes them infertile, people perform hysterectomies on unknowing black women, slaves hide in abolitionists’ attics for months, and towns which house free black people are razed.

   Along with the breath-taking camera work, the soundtrack of the show also accommodates the scenes. As the tension grows heavier, the sweet, enchanting  violins transition to an eerie piano that sets the tone for Cora’s escapes. Composer Nicholas Britell writes music ranging from Beethoven-esque to more of a modern sound like Kendrick Lamar in order to close the episodes.

   Slave movies are always brutal to see; watching the horrors of history is like a piercing knife to the heart, but Barry Jenkins doesn’t fail to also capture the characters’ love, determination, and spirit.