Barry Jenkins broke television

The Underground Railroad is unlike anything you've seen before

The Underground Railroad.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Amazon Studios, iStock)

Beginning Friday, anyone with an Amazon Prime account will be able to watch The Underground Railroad. And likely, millions of people will: The show, by the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, was highly anticipated even before nearly every major outlet labeled it as epic, must-watch TV in their early reviews.

But for all the pre-release hype — and hope, on the part of Amazon, which is rumored to have poured as much as $100 million into the project with the aim of finally landing a show that can compete with the biggest hits on Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, and the rest — it is likely that lots of people will at some point stop watching The Underground Railroad, too. That's partially because labeling what Jenkins has made as "TV" is somewhat misleading: The Underground Railroad isn't something you can put on as casual, after-work entertainment, or binge over a weekend, or even plan to watch based on a reliable, consistent runtime. Though what Jenkins has made certainly isn't a movie, he has broken open the expectations of TV — an experiment that isn't always successful but results in something not quite like anything you've seen before.

The Underground Railroad seems like a strange project for Jenkins, although he's been working on it since 2017, the same year that the book it's based on, by Colson Whitehead, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. While Whitehead's novel is narratively distant from its characters, Jenkins is an emotionally intimate filmmaker; while Whitehead is an ironist who dances close to satire in his alt-history of the antebellum South, Jenkins' films are sincere and visually poetic; and while Whitehead unflinchingly describes the horrors of life as an enslaved person, critics have historically lauded Jenkins for his gentle portrayals of the "urgency of Black love."

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The series, then, marks an intentional and significant departure for the director. Over 10 episodes and nearly 10 hours, he tells the story of an enslaved teenager named Cora (played by the phenomenal South African newcomer Thuso Mbedu), who runs away from the plantation and boards a literal underground steam engine. Her journey northward takes her through similarly literalized exaggerations of Black life in a white supremacist nation, including a seemingly utopian community in South Carolina that ultimately shares parallels with the 1970s Tuskegee experiments, and a version of North Carolina where being Black is illegal, in an echo of both the Holocaust and Jim Crow-era lynch mobs. All the while, a slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his accomplice, a Black boy named Homer (played with superb detestability by 11-year-old Chase W. Dillon), pursue Cora.

What might initially lose some viewers is something that isn't uncommon in prestige television: the violence. Jenkins told The New York Times that an Amazon focus group of Black Atlanta residents surprised him by saying that not only did they want to see Underground Railroad adapted, they wanted it to "show everything. It needs to be hard. It needs to be brutal." Well, it is: A long, lingering torture scene in the first episode is nauseating to watch (at one point, there is even a bleary point-of-view shot from the man being tortured). Later in the series, a recaptured runaway goes on a hunger strike, withering away painfully before our eyes. Any characters we fall in love with seem, at a certain point, destined to die horrifically.

But unlike other shows that seem set on turning Black suffering into relentless degradation porn or turning sexual violence against women into entertainment, Jenkins says Underground Railroad's most difficult scenes are intended to involve the viewer only as much as she wants. "When you have a remote in your hand, and you can press play or pause, you can fast-forward or rewind, that creates a very different experience," he told Datebook. "It empowers the viewer." It's true that Jenkins previously made work was intended to be seen in theaters, where there's not the same ability to disengage, but it also sounds like he might be trying to get out in front of potential criticism. The killing of another attempted runaway, Big Anthony, for example, lasts nearly five excruciating minutes on screen in the premiere, while Whitehead, in his detached style, only wrote three very brief paragraphs about the event, with the burning itself given as little detail as that he "was doused with oil and roasted." Jenkins simply isn't the kind of filmmaker who can relegate the suffering implied in those words to a suggestion, for better or worse. At the same time, The Underground Railroad isn't relentless; while the trauma Cora endures rarely lets up, Jenkins and his longtime cinematographer James Laxton also linger on the moments of joy and light to the point that another complaint might be that the show is too slow.

This isn't a binge-friendly show; it seems intended, rather, to be more patiently absorbed. One can't help but think The Underground Railroad would have been a better fit somewhere like HBO, which could have aired one episode a week (indeed, Jenkins' TV deal has since moved to HBO). Instead, Amazon's streaming format encourages back-to-back viewing, but while the episodes are episodic, there aren't the usual B plots or C plots typical of television to alternate between and prevent downtime. The result, though, is that it has room to breathe; there are long scenes of people simply talking that would have been cut from a more conventional TV show. Laxton's extraordinary cinematography, as it did with Moonlight and If Beale Street Can Talk, gives the project a mythic elevation. Much of the extraordinary ninth episode is just about love and life, with little anxiety on the filmmaker's parts to move on to the next event.

Jenkins bends the streaming format to his advantage, too. While most of The Underground Railroad's episodes are in the ballpark of a little over an hour in length, the longest episode runs nearly 80 minutes, and the shortest is less than 20 minutes. Most television shows, even ones made exclusively for streaming services like Amazon, still tend to be made in regular 30- or 60-minute episode blocks, so Jenkins' disinterest in conforming runtimes is unusual, a fresh use of the medium. It's not exactly something you're able to pop on for a reliable hour before bedtime, nor a format that could easily have existed on an actual TV channel, either.

The Underground Railroad is undeniably an audacious project. Jenkins breaks with the expectations of modern television, creating a visual project that is neither a 10-hour movie nor, exactly, a limited series of the sort we've come to recognize. He's invested in finding a new visual language — the same drive that made him say yes to taking on, as his next project, the sequel to 2019's photorealistic Lion King. "What really pushed me across the line was James, my DP, said, 'You know what? There's something really interesting in this mode of filmmaking that we haven't done and that not many people have done,'" Jenkins told Datebook. You can almost imagine they had the same conversation about The Underground Railroad, too.

Still, unsuspecting viewers, alienated by the violence or baffled by the languid plotting, may abandon it midway through. But for those that stick with it, The Underground Railroad will be a journey worth taking — and certainly one you've never been on before.

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