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Torture-porn slavery mini-series ‘The Underground Railroad’ takes viewers on a long, ugly journey to nowhere

The highly anticipated drama about a runaway slave is a pretentious and repetitive exercise in charting white supremacy across America. It offers no new insights, and stands firmly in the shadow of some superior predecessors.

This article contains minor spoilers for the series ‘The Underground Railroad’.

The Underground Railroad is the new critically-acclaimed limited series from Oscar winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) now streaming on Amazon Prime. 

The show, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, tells the story of Cora, a slave who escapes the hell of a Georgia plantation by taking a train on a literal ‘underground railroad’. 

Having the underground railroad be an actual sub-terranean train system as opposed to a collection of secret routes and safe houses is the lone piece of magic in this magical realist version of the much-told story of slavery in America. 

Unfortunately, The Underground Railroad attempts to be profound and poignant, but ends up being a shamelessly pretentious arthouse poseur that reinforces the suffocating stasis of stereotypes by pandering, placating and patronizing to the lowest common racial denominator. There are no insights to be found in this series, just a tenuous narrative and cardboard cutout characters used as torture and victimhood porn delivery systems. 

Thuso Mbedu plays Cora and lacks the gravitas to carry the project. Mbedu is not a compelling actress and her decision to use a close-mouthed mumble as her dialect was a poor one, as I literally had to turn on the closed caption in order to understand her (and only her). 

Cora escapes the stereotypical cruel, fat white overseer and her viciously sadistic slave owner in Georgia, only to find the villainy and brutality of white supremacy is omnipresent across America.

In South Carolina, she finds a society welcoming of blacks, but under that veneer she discovers the pulsating hatred of white supremacy in the form of eugenics. In North Carolina, the murder of blacks is ritualized, as white supremacy is codified into law and religion. In Tennessee, white supremacy and its American imperative of expansion and domination have laid waste to the state and left it a veritable wasteland. In Indiana, blacks have carved out a seeming utopia, but the menace of white supremacy lurks on the margins ready to pounce at the slightest imagined provocation. 

If that sounds narratively repetitious, it’s because it is. 

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The problem with The Underground Railroad in terms of storytelling is that Cora’s journey is simply physical and not a character arc. She undergoes no mythological, spiritual or psychological transformation at all. All Cora undergoes is one torture after another, with the only lesson learned being that all white people, including abolitionists, are awful if not evil. 

The series is difficult to watch because of the relentless brutality, all of which seems gratuitous especially since there’s no emotional connection developed with the characters. All of the victims, Cora especially, are just one-dimensional punching bag props in the 10-hour diatribe against white supremacy. Maybe the novel does the hard work of character development, because the mini-series sure as hell doesn’t. 

I couldn’t help but think of the canceled-before-it-started HBO show Confederate, while watching The Underground Railroad. Confederate, which was the brainchild of Game of Thrones show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, imagined an alternate history where the Confederacy survived and slavery still existed. HBO backed away from the project in 2017 after social media went nuclear over the notion of “exploiting black suffering for the purposes of art and entertainment.”

The Underground Railroad is being hailed by critics despite doing that exact same thing.

Granted, the show is beautifully shot by cinematographer James Laxton, whose camera dances through the ugliness like a feather floating on a soft breeze, but using the best china and most elaborate garnish will not elevate a painfully thin gruel into a satisfying meal.

Director Jenkins has said that he made The Underground Railroad to counter Trump’s slogan of ‘Make America Great Again’. “I think in that world there’s this vacuum in the historical record or this failure to acknowledge those things, then slogans like this, and even worse actions… will continue to proliferate. So, I think it’s important to fill in those cavities and to acknowledge the truth of what this country is,” he explained.

Does Jenkins really think Americans, even lowly MAGA adherents, want a return of slavery? Or is he simply building an absurd strawman to give his vacuous mini-series some meaning in hindsight that it lacks upon viewing? 

Jenkins strikes me as being as deluded about America as those people who in a recent poll believed that police killed over 10,000 unarmed black men in 2019. He is as detached from reality as the MAGA monsters in his head that he sets out to counter with The Underground Railroad

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The truth is that the story of how the savagery and barbarity of slavery in America distorted and damaged every soul and psyche it touched is an extremely important one, but there is no paucity of significantly better films and TV shows that express that horror more effectively. The iconic and epic Roots, the bone crushingly brilliant Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, and even Quentin Tarantino’s exhilarating revenge fantasy Django Unchained are better resources worthy of your time, because they create catharsis through creativity by utilizing originality and insightfulness, and generating profundity. 

Hell, even dismal cinematic efforts like AmistadBelovedFree State of Jones, and The Birth of a Nation (2016) are superior to the slog that is this mini-series.

Ultimately, you have no need to buy a ticket to ride on The Underground Railroad because it’s an arduous 10-hour circular journey where you learn absolutely nothing and end up in the same damned place you started. 

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