Saturday, June 5, 2021


Barry Jenkins is a filmmaker whose images are sensuous, with his cinematographer James Laxton’s light pulling softly and clearly at the details of people’s faces and bodies, pictures cut together with flowing intuitive poetry. But they’re not weightless in their beauty; they’re heavy with meaning, a substance that is the style. His best achievements — the intimate character study Moonlight, the more expansive relationship heartbreaker If Beale Street Could Talk — use their beauty to bring into vivid relief the soft-spoken, slow-rolling interpersonal dilemmas of the people it puts on screen.The velvety texture of his vision, smooth and speckled, would point to inspirations from Wong Kar-Wai and Claire Denis even if he didn’t name them as such in interviews. It’s something of a shock to bring this aestheticized approach into the tropes of slave narratives for The Underground Railroad, a more than 10-hour adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name. The images are unfailingly beautiful, a painterly prose scrawled with Malickian asides attuned to the rhythms of nature and soulful contemplation, even as the subject matter is grim and gory. One of the first shots is of blood hitting a wooden floor, afterbirth mere cuts away from being buried in a garden. The sprawling and epic historical drama — so long and rambling that it can afford to be drawn intimately and unevenly in broad strokes and pinpoint precise portraiture alike — is full of such fraught and freighted imagery. Here, after all, is the birth of our nation, its original sin, buried with the intent to ignore, but springing up fruit from the poisoned tree. Jenkins is nothing if not aware of the power of his images.

The central focus is on the personal trauma of its characters — a catalogue of slavery’s dehumanizing forms — and the tendrils it snakes through society. Jenkins frames his center of attention with loving weight given to her studied expressions. She’s Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave run away from a plantation, northward bound. As her episodic journey takes her through various States — and various states of freedom — she finds herself navigating a variety of responses to White Supremacy. There’s a genteel town where Black and White live side-by-side in a tenuous acceptance. There’s a town where a White couple appears to be helpful to Black plight, but have nefarious ulterior motives. There’s a town where a kindly couple is willing to hide runaway slaves, but only to a point. There’s a prosperous town run entirely by Black people — the series’ high point, featuring some of Jenkins’ loveliest sun-drenched images, the better to signal the power of hope, some compelling speechifying from the cast, and the looming threat of White violence from those in the next town over. At each stop, Cora sees society forming and reforming around the voids left by prejudice, violence, and despair — the damage, the potential, and the inescapability of certain destruction. The story cuts backwards and forwards in time, exploring characters’ histories, their families, and the cycles of pain they endure—while finding time for oases of love and connection, too.

The ramifications of slavery — the long-lasting physical and emotional toll, and its generational traumas — are written across every painful picturesque image. An early scene gives us a point-of-view shot from a man being burned alive, the image blurring, blinking. Jenkins spares us the worst of the violence by taking us inside. Somehow it hurts all the more. It’s a signal as to his interest in enlivening history through literary accumulation of empathetic detail. It extends to the entire rambling narrative and expansive ensemble. Among the panoply of supporting characters, the most poignant and fascinating has to be a young Black boy (Chase W. Dillon) who tags along as the assistant to a slave catcher (Joel Edgerton). Well dressed, and with a poise beyond his years, he carries with him the complicated ways one can react to a dehumanizing state. He’s won some degree of safety, and yet his interactions with the people around him, White and Black alike, carry an ambiguity as to his ultimate allegiances. That such complication is carried in the boyish face — held so eerily placid, even inscrutable — says so much about the ways in which the systems of oppression warp and linger in one’s behavior. Jenkins’ visions of humanity keeps this in sharp focus, staging his patient shots that look straight ahead without flinching as character’s ravel and unravel.

It’s full of decisions: strong and bold. Though the many hours are sometimes a jumble of incident — pokey in the way to which all prestige miniseries these days, even ones with craft of this high level, succumb — it has enough track to provoke and compel, to lose you and win you back over and over. For every striking, compelling moment, there is a languorous, aimless downtime that will come slowly back into focus. By the end, the totality is an enormous and overwhelming whole, rough and rattled despite the patience and beauty on the surface. My biggest point of contention is with Jenkins’ boldest stroke: carrying over Whitehead’s novel’s central metaphor literalizing the Underground Railroad not as a covert trail of safe houses and brave rescuers, but as an actual train chugging along buried deep beneath the ground. He takes it seriously, and has his characters treat it as fact. There are moments of eerie allegory as this sunken place subway avant la lettre comes puffing out of the darkness, staffed by kindly mysterious people of color willing to lend an ear or disappear. (It also rhymes unexpectedly movingly off the first episode's credits' surprising blast of OutKast: “you can’t stop a train.”) But just as often its metaphorical presence strikes me as less interesting than the historical truths it intends to express symbolically. Besides, when Jenkins digs deep into other moments of sideways historical invention, he does so with a specificity and attention to psychological detail that needs no too-clever fantasy to sell its intensity. Still, I’m grateful for his efforts to bring something like honest to goodness filmmaking worth wrestling with to our TV screens, a Decalogue of slave narratives yearning to be free from the ordinary tropes with which we’re sometimes numbed. This is filmmaking that’s alive and provoking, dense with allusion, alive with intriguing figures, heavy with electric pessimism and hard-fought slivers of grace and hope.

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