Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, a ten-episode miniseries available to stream on Amazon Prime, is the latest example of what I like to call the chaptered movie. It’s a form that, with its union of auteur-driven vision and episodic storytelling, sits right on the line between film and television, and is a big reason those two media are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish.
I see it as the natural (and welcome) result of the streaming revolution: viewers can now stop and start a movie as easily as they pick up and put down a book, and we want our movies to change accordingly. We prefer stories divvied up into pieces, not because of a shortened attention span, but out of a desire for built-in stopping points. It’s unclear if the industry at large has grasped this distinction, but Jenkins, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, seems to understand it perfectly.
Along with a team of writers, he has adapted Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name into ten chapters, all of which he directed. The longest of these runs at 77 minutes, while the shortest comes in at just under 20. Amazon has been criticized for releasing them all at once, with critics arguing the show’s emotional intensity and graphic imagery would have been better served by a week-to-week strategy that lets the viewer sit with each episode. I certainly understand this impulse. The Underground Railroad is not something to be binged in one sitting, as much because of the work’s thematic richness as the effect that could have on your mental health – but I wouldn’t recommend reading Whitehead’s novel in one sitting either. Best to let the viewer ride the rails at their own pace.
Though it allows itself the freedom to drift into other perspectives, the miniseries is primarily the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), who, along with her friend Caesar (Aaron Pierre), flees enslavement at a Georgia plantation via the Underground Railroad – portrayed here as a very literal network of subterranean trains. Through Cora’s journey, which oscillates almost cyclically between horror and wonder, The Underground Railroad explores a narrative of American history that, like the railroad itself, has been forced to develop below mainstream society. It is difficult, challenging viewing that is as rewarding to experience as it is to contemplate. Jenkins has shepherded a production that is beautiful and intelligent at every level of filmmaking, from the outstanding design and performances to the inspired writing and score. This is a work that promises to linger, in the minds of its viewers as well as in the history of cinema.
The Underground Railroad inspires far too many words for this review – I expect it will take years to unearth all there is to say, if such a thing is even possible – but if there is any one word that defines this project, it is humanization. Jenkins fights through the abstraction of history to remind us that it was lived by human beings, with neither hero nor villain denied complexity, and any act of violence or cruelty is thereby humanized as well. Rather than feeling like an exploitation of Black trauma for shock value, then, these scenes of graphic communicate the profound sense of loss that comes with dehumanization, which only builds as the viewer’s understanding of what is lost deepens. This is, I believe, at the heart of the series’ success, though loss is only one side of the coin – what is gained by Jenkins’ approach is even more remarkable.