Review: The Underground Railroad : Pop Culture Happy Hour The new Amazon series The Underground Railroad is the latest project from Barry Jenkins, who directed Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. It's the story of Cora, a runaway slave in the antebellum South, who escapes a vicious Georgia plantation and sets off on a journey toward freedom aboard the mysterious and entirely literal underground railroad. It's many contradictory things at once: lyrical yet brutal, luminous yet horrifying.
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'The Underground Railroad' Is A Brutal Yet Beautiful Ride

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'The Underground Railroad' Is A Brutal Yet Beautiful Ride

'The Underground Railroad' Is A Brutal Yet Beautiful Ride

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

The new Amazon series "The Underground Railroad" is the latest project from Barry Jenkins, who directed "Moonlight" and "If Beale Street Could Talk." It's the story of Cora, a runaway slave in the antebellum South who escapes a vicious Georgia plantation and sets off on a journey toward freedom aboard the mysterious and entirely literal Underground Railroad. At various stops along the way, she'll encounter many different facets of racism, pursued all the while by a relentless slave catcher. It's many contradictory things at once - lyrical, yet brutal, luminous, yet horrifying.

I'm Glen Weldon. And today, we're talking about "The Underground Railroad" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

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WELDON: Welcome back. With me is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey, man. How are you doing?

WELDON: Very well. Also with me is Bedatri Choudhury. Welcome back, Bedatri.

BEDATRI CHOUDHURY: Thank you so much for having me, Glen.

WELDON: And last but not least is iHeartRadio producer Joelle Monique. Hello, Joelle.

JOELLE MONIQUE: Hi, Glen. What's up?

WELDON: Well, this is up. "The Underground Railroad" is a 10-episode Amazon series with an impressive pedigree. It's directed by Barry Jenkins and based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. Thuso Mbedu stars as Cora. Joel Edgerton is her obsessed pursuer, Ridgeway. Cora first escapes alongside her fellow slave, Caesar, played by Aaron Pierre. Lily Rabe turns up as a devout woman who reluctantly agrees to hide Cora. And William Jackson Harper is Royal, a conductor of the Underground Railroad who seeks to help her heal the wounds of her past. And speaking of wounds, this show's depictions of the horrors of slavery are stark and unflinching. There's an ongoing cultural conversation about entertainment that foregrounds Black trauma, and "The Underground Railroad" will certainly become a part of that.

So, Joelle, let me start with you. What did you make of "The Underground Railroad"?

MONIQUE: Cinematic exploration of race as it pertains not just to our ancestors but to ourselves currently. We've entered a time where we have to contemplate what it means to take in slave narratives. And that's really hard for a lot of people. If you're one of those people, I encourage you to dig through and get through. There's a payoff that is worth watching this series. As challenging as it is, as many breaks as I needed, I'm glad I watched it. I'm glad Barry Jenkins dug into himself and into Mr. Whitehead's work to tell this story. It's hard. But it's really something to watch.

WELDON: Bedatri, same question - what'd you make of it?

CHOUDHURY: Yeah. I mean, I agree with Joelle. Like, you know, it is hard to watch. But it is something that we need to watch, especially in the country we live in today. In fact, Barry Jenkins is - in an interview says that, you know, throughout his schooling in the U.S., the topic of slavery was broached - and I quote - "so pithily, shoddily and heinously" that he had to make this. And I think that is where this show is so radical because it forces you to look. And you can't look away from that history because you have to - not make peace, but you have to at least acknowledge that we have a violent history. And the only way of moving forward is acknowledging it and then processing it and then bettering it. We can't ignore it anymore.

WELDON: Absolutely. Now, Eric, you've been doing some thinking about this because there certainly has been a spate of recent media that deal with this topic and deal with it in a very explicit way. What'd you think of "The Underground Railroad"?

DEGGANS: You know, I used to be one of those folks who would get a little annoyed at people who would say, you know, as a blanket statement, I'm not watching anymore slave narratives because I can't stand to watch Black pain. And I got to say, man, when I started watching this, I had the exact same reaction. It is so hard for me to watch it. Even though I trust Barry Jenkins and he's an amazing filmmaker and there is a lot to like about what he's done here, there's a part of me that gets really pissed off that Black people have to constantly open our wounds and show how we've been brutalized by America to get America to understand trauma and the heritage of trauma and what that's done to us as a people.

So the critic part of me says, this is an amazing piece of work. And I'm so glad that Barry Jenkins made it. And I'm so glad we're at a time where filmmakers like him can get the kind of budget that he got to make this moving and cinematic work. And then there's another part of me that's like, why do we have to keep doing this? I'm tired of having to convince the world to pay attention to our pain and learn from it without us having to reopen those wounds and show them again. And so I just wanted to say that because I have a feeling there'll be a lot of people who might feel the same way. And it's cool to feel that way.

MONIQUE: Like, as a consumer of media, I want to be able to honor our ancestors and watch their stories, right? But in order to do that impactfully, I think you have to be as creative as Barry was in creating new ways to horrify the viewer. I've never seen anything like the pilot. I've seen a lot of lynchings in films and television. I was horrified.

CHOUDHURY: This is a lot of emotional and intellectual labor that Barry Jenkins is doing. And that's what Eric also talks about when he says, why do Black people need to keep reopening their wounds to do this? And, of course, there's, like, a psychological backlash to that emotional labor. And I think the viewer should be aware that there is a lot of that in this show.

WELDON: Well, let's talk about that narrative tension here because the thing about fiction that deals with the atrocities of slavery, this giant, festering wound on the American soul - the mere fact of it is so huge, it's almost impossible to get your head around. And what this is doing is trying to help us get our head around it. Here's what I'm talking about. So if this were any other novel or film or TV show and you were workshopping it or you were getting studio notes, you'd get feedback saying, OK, these antagonists are too broad. They are cartoonishly evil. I don't buy them. But that critique goes out the window because this evil was not nuanced. It was absolute. And if you're going to write about it, you have to respect that. You have to depict it that way.

You might get somebody saying, well, Cora, you know, as a main character, she's too passive. She has no agency. She needs to act, not always get acted upon. But that's not a flaw in this storytelling. That's the point of this storytelling. On Fresh Air last week, Jenkins told Terry Gross that he sees fiction as an empathy machine, which, of course, is exactly what it is. And he's putting us in Cora's point of view. So, yes, we experience these atrocities along with her. But if he was only doing that, it would be misery porn. But he's being very careful to make sure that we're there so we can look around like she does and see the people around her as they distinguish themselves from each other. They individualize themselves. They build networks. And they persevere in the face of this unimaginable evil.

So the thing that I kept coming back to, though, is Joel Edgerton as Ridgeway, the slave catcher. I don't think I've ever seen that actor be better than he is here. But to be fair, I haven't seen him that much. And he got a lot of screen time here. This is 600 minutes long, this thing. And he's on screen a lot. I did feel in his early scenes the same way I did reading the book, which is that I hope - please, God, tell me you are not saying daddy didn't love me is a justification for him becoming this monster, because it's not doing that. But it's - I think what it's trying to do is add a facet to this giant, blank wall of pure evil. I did feel sometimes that we were getting more of his backstory than we needed at the expense of Cora's inner life. Joelle, do you agree?

MONIQUE: I agree just in that - like, at one point, I was like, I just don't care about this story anymore. Like, I don't want to hear from him anymore. But I also think there's moments in here that are shockingly modern - right? - moments where you're like, I identify with this situation in a way that's frightening because I hoped we would be so much further from this era. And if you think a lot about QAnon, about the way people have prayed and hoped racism would die out as if it's something inherently within just old people, I think this is making a very bold statement about the way racism doesn't fade - right? - a way that it's not necessarily taught directly in the home, and the way that even the best of parents who have the best of intentions are not only unable to uneducate (ph) society's racism from their children, but aren't going to do a whole hell of a lot to make sure their children aren't inflicting that pain on people, right? If you are going to explore slavery, you can't do it without exploring the people that enforce it. And so as much as I was over it, I also understood the necessity to use it as a backbone in exploring Cora's story because somebody is physically haunting her. And we need to understand why if we're going to ever come to terms with what happened.

CHOUDHURY: I mean, I really like the word modern because, you know, we've all met people who've said, oh, I'm not racist. I have a Black friend. And when you see Edgerton's character, he's literally that person because he has Homer, the 10-year-old kid, walking with him everywhere and being his - pretty much - right hand. Like, you know, he does all the work. You know, in the modern sense, it's also like how a lot of people tokenize Black people to kind of say that I'm not racist. What I want is actually justice. Or let me decide how much joy Black people are allowed. So, you know, I'm so glad that you used the word modern here.

DEGGANS: Yeah. You know, what's interesting to me about this is like, so much of the choices that Barry Jenkins makes are double-edged swords here. One reason why it's so distinctive is because the storytelling moves so slowly. But that also means that when he's showing atrocities, we're spending a lot of time with them. We're sitting in them in a way that is really damaging. And the other thing is that when he goes off and gives us the backstory of this slave catcher, we spend a lot of time with this guy. And he's the only character that I can think of in the narrative who Jenkins shows us his motivation. And then the guy tells us his motivation again. You're getting his story twice, (laughter) you know, because Barry is showing us that he's jealous of Black people. And he's particularly jealous of this one Black person that his father really respects.

The thing that's interesting to me, though, is that, OK, Cora holds back because that makes sense. But it also means that we don't know her as well as we know the slave catcher, which, I think, is kind of bizarre. And see; like, a book can take you into her head. But this visual narrative, it's harder to do that. So we don't know her as well. And the other character - the type of character that we don't get to know well, the white abolitionists who are also risking their lives and their families' lives to protect and save Black people. And the one abolitionist family that we kind of meet seem to have a lot of contempt for Black people. And I don't even really understand, like, why they're doing it. So like I said, it's a double-edged sword. You get a character who's really compelling. But then you wind up spending a little too much time with that character because of how the narrative is constructed.

MONIQUE: To Eric's point, like, Jenkins is trying to eliminate the white savior - right? - that narrative - oh, and then a white person came, and it was better. And I think that's what makes it feel modern to me. I get your point in that obviously there had to have been other people on the side who were not doing this. But I also think that being able to showcase the ways in which whiteness can at first seem like protection or evolution and then sort of come crashing down around you. And then to play into the ideas of - you know, so much of what makes this story great is that your main character has no idea where she's going, like, ever. Like, there's never any clue as to, like, OK, you're going to be here, and you'll meet this person. And so there's no, ever, net of safety.

And without that net, everything - all of the tricks and turns and distrust - you know, you think in the pilot that you've seen the worst of it, you know, because it's physically upsetting. Like, it's awful to look at. But then the mind games that not are only played against Cora, but that she has to play in order to survive - right? - the way she has to look beyond just blatant cruelty into manipulation, I think there are vital lessons in that. And I'm intrigued in a series that isn't interested in a white savior.

DEGGANS: I definitely hear that. I guess my - one of my bugaboos in watching some films is when I feel like characters' reactions are changed to fit the narrative that the storyteller wants to tell, and they make the character act in ways that don't make sense. The abolitionist couple who takes in Cora, those characters just didn't feel like they made any sense to me. And I think it would've been possible to create them and describe an abolitionist point of view without making them white saviors 'cause, ultimately, they don't save her. But feeling like I'm watching a character who is making choices because they're not supposed to be the white savior makes me feel like, man, you know (laughter), just let the character be, man.

WELDON: How much of that is an effect of the fact that this is 10 hours long? I mean, the Barry Jenkins of this is a major selling point here. You know, he has characters stare down the barrel of the camera. They're implicating us in that way. He's got these amazing compositions. And his cinematography just captures color and light and shadow and, in some cases, the real vibrancy of these costumes. Also, the sound design - he doesn't get - you know, people don't talk about the sound design that much. But, I mean, like, there's a moment when a conductor opens that manifest, which is where everybody who rides the train kind of writes down their story. And whenever that book is opened, we hear this low murmuring of many, many voices. And as soon as the book is closed, that cuts out completely. It's really cool.

But there is - I'm not telling any tales out of school here. There is a languidness to his pacing that just hits different in a two-hour movie than it does in a 10-hour TV show. These scenes stretch out without dialogue for long minutes. And, Eric, I think this is some of what you're talking to here. That's time we could be used to get inside Cora's head, and we just - we're outside of her head watching as the camera paces back-and-forth slowly. It's going to test your patience, but I think it's trying to. Amazon dropped all 10 episodes at once, which is very unusual for them. They usually do that weird thing where it's like three episodes here, and then next week two, and then here's one. It's a fascinating choice because as much as I admired the show - and I admired everything about it - this is nobody's weekend binge. This is unbingeable (ph). Do you guys agree?

CHOUDHURY: Yeah, I mean, not to take away from the artistic/cinematic value of the series. I mean, like you said, you know, I think Barry Jenkins is a master of lighting. I remember - this was in 2018 at the New York Film Festival in a conversation with the author Darryl Pinckney. Pinckney says to Jenkins that you remind us over and over again how beautiful Black bodies are in color. And I have never forgotten that. You know, that - I mean, you know, it was 2018. 2021 - I keep thinking of that one sentence every time I watch something by Barry Jenkins - is just how beautiful the use of color is and use of light can be, especially on Black people, which we haven't seen because we know that, you know, there is a problem with photography where, like, Black people are either washed out or, like, just blobs. So I think, you know, there is extreme artistic value in this series apart from the trauma, apart from the pain and also the celebration. There's a celebration of community. There's a celebration of beauty. So, yeah. I mean, don't binge-watch it. Watch it slowly. Let it happen to you. And please allow yourself time to process this.

MONIQUE: There's this, I think, hunger for Black portraiture specifically as it pertains either to groups of beings or time periods where the available portraiture is limited to the mass public. And I think that it resonates. It is languid. If you're like me and don't mind a very long, slow shot, there's something really beautiful and contemplative in these long moments. If you're really hungry for action, for the push of the story - you know, I binged it. I'll be honest. I watched eight episodes back to back. It was harrowing and exhausting. I took 15-, 20-minute breaks. I played with my dog in between. For sure, don't feel rushed in needing to complete this. It is - it's a study, and you can take your time.

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WELDON: We want to know what you think about "The Underground Railroad." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks, guys, for being here.

CHOUDHURY: Thank you for having me.

MONIQUE: Thanks for having us.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you've got a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And we will see you all tomorrow.

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