The Achievement of Barry Jenkins’s “The Underground Railroad”

In the light of high noon, cotton fields are menacingly fecund, owing to the work of the enslaved laborers who stand painfully erect among the crop, like stalks themselves.

In the first two minutes, we are given the meat of Whitehead’s plot, which has been compressed into an Impressionistic montage, priming the audience for an intense experiment in durational storytelling.

Later in the episode, the plantation owner says, “A nigger and a man are two entirely different things.” Jenkins’s actors confront this paradox, which requires them to embody the idea of disembodiment.

In this episode, the show enters the space of criticism: Cora works at a museum, where she and other women perform plantation reënactments—a kind of exhibitionist production that alludes to Henry , Ridgeway’s assistant, who sees Cora for who she is, and therefore sees the “art” as fraudulent.

“The Underground Railroad,” which is about not being seen as much as it is about being seen, engages with the chaos of the slavery epic by way of the rhythms of slow cinema.

There are the painters—Julius Bloch, with his gaping lynching scenes, must have been on the director’s mind; Jasper, a runaway and a companion to Cora during her ordeal with Ridgeway, is a living, then dying, Kerry James Marshall figure—and the directors: Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Arthur Jafa.

There is a question that seems unreasonable to ask, and yet I find myself asking it: What is freedom to Cora, who has not experienced it, and how will she know when she has found it? The series does not, and can not, envision the place beyond Exodus.

Late in the series, it appears that Cora, brought by a chivalrous conductor called Royal to the free black village of Valentine Farm, has finally made it.

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