The Underground Railroad 2021 / A harrowing and masterfully crafted odyssey through American slavery

8.2

As is only appropriate for a limited series about such a horrific period in human history, The Underground Railroad isn’t meant to be easy viewing. Thanks to uncompromising direction from Barry Jenkins (the director of the Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight) and unforgettable images from cinematographer James Laxton, this approaches a level of confrontational storytelling that almost seems inappropriate for the comforts of television. But it’s essential viewing nonetheless, and Jenkins makes sure to transform this into a much stranger, more thought-provoking tale beyond the brutality of its first episode.

The Underground Railroad is speculative fiction: instead of being a historical account of the real-life network of routes to help free African-American slaves, it imagines a literal train that swiftly transports Cora (a powerful Thuso Mbedu) from one dystopian vision of white America to another. With every new setting, Jenkins doesn’t just talk about slavery; he talks about how America talks about slavery, and how the stories of these Black slaves are constantly reappropriated by white supremacists.

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