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‘The Underground Railroad’ and the violence of discourse

Emil Hofileña
‘The Underground Railroad’ and the violence of discourse

Screenshot from trailer

Hauntingly constructed and emotionally resonant, the new series from the director of ‘Moonlight’ reimagines the story of America’s slave trade

There is no easy way for works of fiction to depict actual historical atrocities.

Every movie or TV show that tries to raise awareness or tell stories about about war, genocide, or widespread violence seems to run up against the same questions. How necessary is it to reenact images of death and bloodshed to the audience? Do dramatic portrayals and glossy productions cheapen or dignify the memory of the real victims? Can these stories really stand for justice when they’re distributed by companies and networks that are, at the end of the day, driven by profit?

These are questions that not even a high-profile project like The Underground Railroad should be exempt from answering.

The 10-episode miniseries is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, and is directed, produced, and co-written by Barry Jenkins (best known for his Academy Award-winning film Moonlight).

It follows an African American woman named Cora (played by Thuso Mbedu), who attempts to escape slavery in the Antebellum South using a network of secret underground trains. This is the series’ hook: the real Underground Railroad didn’t have actual locomotives, of course, but Whitehead imagines an entire system and fictional society that can rapidly transport people across state lines.

So on the surface, The Underground Railroad presents itself as a tale of adventure, liberally referencing Gulliver’s Travels to set our expectations of seeing strange characters and foreign landscapes. But it also deliberately refuses to indulge in the escapism offered by speculative fiction. In fact, it’s just about as violent as many recent films about the slave trade. And it gradually sheds its adventure trappings and starts asking more and more questions about Black people’s relationship with America.

The Underground Railroad exists as a sort of walking contradiction. It’s designed to be brutal and beautiful, outlandish and deadly serious. Whether it succeeds as a constructive or appropriate depiction of slavery shouldn’t be up to this writer to say.

However, for what it’s worth, Jenkins’ adaptation certainly holds artistic merit. The director has always been interested in dignifying the oppressed – from his portrait of a gay Black man in Moonlight, to his vision of Black love under a broken justice system in If Beale Street Could Talk.

But in The Underground Railroad, Jenkins proves himself equally adept at fantasy. He successfully animates Whitehead’s fictionalized American South into unnatural and dreamlike vistas that feel less like tangible places and more like states of mind.

James Laxton’s haunting cinematography, Nicholas Britell’s mournful score, and some incredibly anxious sound design all help to bridge these physical spaces to the mental spaces of the show’s main character.

In his depiction of slave owners, on the other hand, Jenkins argues that we can afford to view them in hyperbole – as little more than unthinking monsters, or mad scientists, or hyper-religious cult members who don’t deserve any sympathy. Joel Edgerton’s psychopath slavecatcher Ridgeway, for example, is given the most screen time next to Cora, but The Underground Railroad never even tries to make excuses for his behavior. His racism and thirst for vengeance is only ever evil and pathetic.

In sharp contrast, Jenkins allows his Black characters to have maximum interiority, far beyond the stock character types that many slavery narratives settle for. Through many quiet, unbroken tracking shots that freely approach and encircle each Black character, Jenkins invites us to understand all their hopes and wishes kept hidden from the watchful eyes of their White oppressors. Cora, especially, is never reduced into an object of suffering or a vessel for “resilience.”

The abandonment she experiences as a child, as well as the survivor’s guilt she develops, makes hers a distinct journey of bitter healing, as she constantly re-negotiates how to live and for whom to live. And Mbedu keeps this character remarkably responsive to her ever-changing circumstances.

But Cora also isn’t meant to be the most active protagonist in the world. Her being a former slave limits her actions and expressions, even when it seems like she’s in the clear. She still functions primarily as a witness to the way the world changes around her. And this is where The Underground Railroad sets itself apart and clearly begins to act as allegory.

The trains that carry Cora from one safehouse to another aren’t supposed to be taken literally, functioning instead as narrative devices to take America from one heated debate to the next. Every new area Cora visits sees White Americans testing out a new compromise, trying to fit Black Americans into their idea of a comfortable society. The end result is generally the same: the Black Americans argue for basic human rights, the Whites open fire, and Cora winds up back on the road. Every time she boards a new train, she is asked to record her testimony before she can depart. This ensures that she never forgets what her people went through. But it also ensures that the emotional toll only gets heavier and heavier on her shoulders.

To the question of whether or not a work like The Underground Railroad is “necessary,” one could argue that its allegorical elements are a useful shorthand for the ways White America constantly tries to control the narrative for the people it subjugates. At the same time, one could argue that the series’ more graphic elements only contradict its more progressive ideas. Again, it doesn’t seem appropriate to try and answer this question without Black voices in the room. But the same narrative tension applies to fiction based on atrocities here in the Philippines.

For example, one thinks of the many Filipino productions we’ve gotten about the war on drugs, or the (much fewer) films we’ve gotten about the displacement of indigenous peoples from their land by the military. Martial law remains a relatively popular subject for films and theater productions, just as the state’s bloody campaigns against rebel groups have become more urgent topics for artists to address.

We seem to make the same demands of these kinds of stories: they shouldn’t make a spectacle out of violence, the humanity of the victims should be preserved, the oppressors should be held accountable. Under a government that tries to silence dissent, just having these stories out in the open already seems like a significant push against the powerful.

But if The Underground Railroad teaches us anything else, it’s that the conversation can’t stop at the reenactment of atrocities on screen. Perhaps just as important is the way these films and TV shows talk about the act of talking about atrocities.

In The Underground Railroad, slavery is first and foremost a blight on America, but it also becomes a memory that White America toys with. It becomes baggage that Black America is forced to keep carrying to the next station. With all the different ways information is shared, reframed, and corrupted today, we are reminded that there is violence and power in discourse, too. – Rappler.com

The Underground Railroad is streaming on Prime Video.