Review by Sean Boelman
The Underground Railroad is filmmaker Barry Jenkins’s most grand work yet, both in terms of scale and storytelling. And while it was amazing to see what his vision could become with more resources at his disposal, there are a few points where the series goes too big and loses track of his characteristically intimate style.
The series follows a young woman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery as she attempts to break free from the bonds of slavery in the American south. Based on a novel by Colson Whitehead, it’s unlikely that viewers have seen a vision of the slavery era quite like this, a blend of historical fiction and surrealism that is equal parts horrifying and magical.
There are ten episodes in the series, the majority of which follow the protagonist on her journey. However, there are a few (typically shorter) episodes which explore the backstory of one of the side characters. While the place that these have in the greater picture makes sense, they also drag the overall pacing of the story to a near-total halt.
Although the plot follows a woman breaking free from slavery, it is more about a woman reconnecting with her identity, and therefore it stands out from similar stories that have been told. The portions of the series that explore the connection between the protagonist and her mother are very profound and honestly should have been expanded upon even more. And Thuso Mbedu’s turn is brilliant, sure to make her a breakout star.
That said, there are some interesting choices made in regards to the supporting characters. A significant amount of time is devoted to the slave catcher pursuing the protagonist (he even gets his own episode) and it really stalls the momentum of the main series arc. Even though Joel Edgerton gives a phenomenal performance in the role, the character isn’t as well-integrated as one would hope.
Plenty of other great actors show up in the supporting cast as well. William Jackson Harper and Aaron Pierre are both memorable as figures that the protagonist encounters along her path. And young actor Chase W. Dillon brings a surprising level of empathy to a character that was undeniably very difficult to pull off.
Visually, the series contains a lot of Jenkins’s typical lyrical and poetic imagery, albeit on a bigger scale. The series also contrasts this beauty with some horrific images, especially in the first episode that is particularly hard to watch. It’s a unique stylistic approach to this story, yet it works almost unequivocally.
The Underground Railroad is an undeniably impressive work of historical fiction, even if it does have its flaws. With this, Barry Jenkins has proven that he has the talent to tell both intimate and grand stories, and any cinephile should be excited to see what he does next.
The Underground Railroad streams on Amazon Prime beginning May 14. All ten episodes reviewed.