After spending 10 precious hours of my life on Barry Jenkins’s certifiable masterpiece, I am rendered numbed and speechless. I can only say this for those who have yet not seen this monumental classic: go for it immediately, your life and your understanding of human suffering will be profoundly enriched.
Set in the 19th century in the thick of slavery in the plantations of Southern USA, The Underground Railroad is the story of a very young very determined girl named Cora(Thuso Mbedu) and her repeated resilient attempts to escape slavery. I don’t know how much Cora suffered within herself. But her physical torture is beyond endurance for us. Some of the episodes came with a warning about graphic violence. Still, nothing, absolutely nothing prepared me for the savagery of the violence perpetrated on the black people. God, it seems, is busy elsewhere.
In case you have forgotten how cruel humankind can be to the weak, The Underground Railroad is a rude reminder. A savage nudge to the power games that continue to commandeer relationships between the rulers and the subjects, the latter now known in democratic countries as the electorate.
Call them by any name, Cora for that matter. The urge to suppress subjugate and disempower the underprivileged is not a thing of the past. This is what makes Cora’s brave run a true hero’s tale.
We are all running from those who misuse power to show us our place. There is a sequence in Chapter 1 where a runaway slave is brought back chained to a scaffold and burnt alive as the white guests watch as though at an entertainment parlour.
By now you must have guessed this series is not for the weak-hearted. Many times I was seriously tempted to give up watching the sheer brutality on screen. But The Underground Railway won’t let you go. Barry Jenkins whose study of black homosexuality in Moonlight won him the Oscar for best picture heaps the horrors unvarnished.
But here’s the thing: the violence is not done for effect. When Cora is whipped mercilessly every whiplash falls on all of civilization, back white brown yellow….The shame of Cora’s violation is for keeps and for all. All of civilization would bear the scars of her wounds until civilization exists.
The railroad refers to an actualization of an imaginary network of underground Black relief that existed for runaway slaves. Here the railroad becomes a reality. As Cora flees from one town to another her story acquires the immediacy of a parable told in the language of newspaper headlines. As she runs we pray. But there is no escape from the darkness.
Till the end, Cora remains a persecuted hounded fugitive. Glimmers of love and hope(her companion Caesar, played with superb poignancy by Aaron Pierre, when she first from flees captivity, her haunted companion Jasper played with bleeding despondency by Calvin Leon Smith as she is apprehended the first time, her last chance at love and companionship when she meets Royal played by William Jackson Harper at a Black commune) are firmly snuffed out.
Be warned. The heroine in The Underground Railroad gets no justice or redemption. For that, you will have to wait for lesser cinematic experiences, the ones that offer false hope. Barry Jenkins has no solace or salvation to offer his heroine. In fact Cora’s hunter, the slave catcher is a far more powerful character than Cora. You won’t be able to take your eyes off Joel Edgerton as the slave catcher or for that matter young black Chase W Dillon as Edgerton’s trusted boy-Friday. These two represent red-hot evil. They remind us that good only triumphs in the fictional world.
The Underground Railroad is a work of ceaseless wonder. It brings Colson Whitehead’s novel to shimmering life, creating images that are from the book and yet far beyond. Pain, suffering, trauma and nervous anxiety are its guiding forces. But the presentation is macabrely magical. You can’t take your eyes off Cora’s suffering. This work of art legitimizes suffering as the predominant elixir for artistic excellence.
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