Rediscovering the Value of Telling Slave Stories Through Barry Jenkins’ ‘The Underground Railroad’
Before watching “The Underground Railroad,” now streaming on Amazon Prime, I first saw the show’s companion piece, “An Act of Seeing: Barry Jenkins’s The Gaze,” at the Museum of Moving Images. The exhibit’s standout feature was a compilation of moving-image portraits of the series’ cast, staring directly at the camera as life carries on behind them. The images were vividly colored: lush green grass in flaxen sunlight, women in dresses with layered full skirts, patterned in plaid, stripes or an opaque bright yellow. Many of the men posed in tailored suits representative of the mid-century. It was costuming I hadn’t often associated with Black characters in antebellum slavery, and it made them distinguished and defiant as they stared into the camera. Moved by these images, I resolved to rescind an earlier proclamation to never watch media depicting slavery. It took me nearly a year to make good on my resolution.
“The Underground Railroad” is an epic adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The story follows the journey of Cora as she escapes a Georgia plantation and is relentlessly pursued by a bounty hunter. Though unshrinking in its depiction of violence, the series offers visceral moments of tenderness between Cora and her companions, portrayed in powerful performances from a cast that includes Thuso Mbedu, Aaron Pierre, and William Jackson Harper. Jenkins released the show in 2021 to critical acclaim, despite facing enough pushback to make him consider scrapping the project.
Many express frustration with television and film slave narratives. As a kid I accepted the notion that movies serve as an exploration of how far we’ve come, but viral videos of modern-day murders and brutalization of Black people today refute that progress.
What is the point in seeking fictional brutality? Who benefits?
Artist, Sade Adeyina, agrees, “[I]t constantly feels like trauma porn.”
The question of violence isn’t the only complaint some viewers have. Google reviewers argue the use of a literal railroad that connects Cora to a string of safehouses and smugglers is ludicrous in “The Underground Railroad.”Perhaps their apprehension with the metaphorical interpretation of Black history stems from how often our stories get sanitized by creators and institutions outside the Black community. But calls to “stick to the facts” forget that much of our beliefs about the Underground Railroad—and slavery in general—are already laden with myth.
“White creatives have never stuck to the facts, most of the historical media they create is fantastical re-imaginings and glamourized,” Adeyina says, “but how often are their works interrogated based on historical fact?”
Written accounts of slavery usually incite less derision and, indeed, are a touchstone of Black and early American literature. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was the best-selling novel of the 19-century, second only to the Bible, and celebrated author Toni Morrison notes Black authors’ first published books were the memoirs and autobiographies of former slaves. These books confirmed Black Americans’ humanity and garnered support for abolition, but Morrison claims it was crucial for her to give life to the spiritual and psychological intimacies absent from slave narratives.
“Memories and recollections won’t give me total access to the unwritten interior life of these people,” Morrison wrote. “Only the act of imagination can help me.”
This act of imagining fueled Morrison’s ground-breaking novel “Beloved,” wherein violent events underline Morrison’s use of the supernatural. A household haunting doesn’t obscure the novel’s realism, but it emphasizes the gravity of living in the immediate wake of slavery.
Jenkins creates on screen interiority for his characters through his use of close-ups. A character glimpses an object or setting, and we watch as recognition and memory unfolds on their face. He lingers closely on a character as they contemplate their answer to a question. When we first encounter Cora, she is standing at the edge of a riverbank, facing the water. She turns to look over her shoulder and stares into the camera, her exhaustion and anger palpable.
“The first and last thing my mama ever gave me was apologies,” Cora tells us. Her mother ran away from the plantation when she was a child, abandoning her to a righteous bitterness. Along with the (un)imaginable terrors of dehumanization, Cora wrestles with feelings of loneliness and desertion. “The Underground Railroad” is not a straightforward fable showcasing our ancestor’s plight. It attempts, as does Morrison, to give voice to those denied complexity. We witness Cora striving, not as a representative for a people at large, but for herself as a person. In many ways the story is a classic odyssey except in this hero’s journey there is no return to home but a discovery of one. She is not only fleeing the violent enslavement to which she was born but seeking community she never achieved on the plantation.
With this series I realized that Jenkins shows gruesome cruelty to allow us to witness Cora beyond it. Avoiding depictions of the real terrors of slavery doesn’t mitigate its legacy or eliminate its psychic and physical traumas embedded into our social construction. If anything, we run the risk of developing a sort of cultural amnesia where we relegate our rather recent history to a distant archive, detached from the present.
Claims that Black people are more than stories of pain and oppression are correct. And with “The Underground Railroad” Jenkins reminds us this was the case for the enslaved as well.
On her journey Cora encounters all the regular pitfalls and elations of being human—hope, fear, contentment, tragedy, and most crucially, love.
None of it is absolute fact, but perhaps we can call it truth.