The magnificent, magical, brutal and tender “The Underground Railroad” is less crafted and shaped than it is gently hewn. It is about a dream of escape, precipitated by a literal yet fantasticated railway, and the journeys that dream permits, into a pre-Civil War America of the imagination, but it is also a river, comprised of streams and rivulets of generations of blood. It takes place “then,” but also now, and forever. Sometimes a waking nightmare, it becomes a futurism of dreams, a Möbius strip of hope. Physical passages and eras blend without fuss, with sublime ease.
A ten-hour series, dense with effort and rich in effortlessness, directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, “The Underground Railroad” introduces a brace of characters that will move through the space of the South. Some are slaves, and some enslave. The main characters, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) were cast, Jenkins says, as part of “this diaspora of Black people”: a South African actress, a London-born actor.
The camera asserts itself in the first moments and then throughout, mobile, even motile, introducing an element that is the visual equivalent of breath, of the moment, of the movie, of the viewer. Steady but of utmost patience: Forward, backward, backwards, forwards. The camera drifts, it lingers as figures catch their breath. They do not so much react as absorb. The perspective may move in or out in this reframing of space, but it does not make mere curlicues: the film finds the caesura, the cadence of reading itself, contemplative pauses for breath. (There is also the suggestion of never-ending PTSD and the sensation of tinnitus.) There are also many close-ups, “portraits,” to use Jenkins’ word, on the fly. Breath taken.
Jenkins transcends when he works at an elemental level, when he seeks the ineffable in gestures and glances: at the very most basic, “Moonlight,” water; “The Underground Railroad;” fire. Another writer from Florida, the cussed novelist Harry Crews, when he was a young man, tells the story that an agent from New York read an early manuscript of his and offered this advice: “Burn it,“ he was told. “Fire is a purifying force.”
So are water and wind and words. No one told that to Colson Whitehead, and no one told that to Barry Jenkins, to set their vision alight. But “The Underground Railroad” holds fires that burn within and without, that seek to sear without consuming a man or woman whole, and “Moonlight,” of course, humid and made of oceans, those that surround that state of Florida and those that wash from its protagonist.
Jenkins is a cinephile, and with personalities and passions such as his, you want to measure the range of his influences and ambition drawn from what he has seen and consumed. With an extended shoot, in a recent, not-yet-passed American era, from August 2019 to September 2020, instinct would have to take the place of connoisseurship. He readily, enthusiastically pledges his love to French filmmaker Claire Denis as a mother, as a forebear, as a living ancestor he has gotten to commune with, to speak to face-to-face. Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai is there, too, in the lingering light of desire in “Moonlight,” in the patterning of emotion through décor and costume, the impenitent rococo of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The sound, too, is earnestly voluptuous, such as a scene of two women scrubbing wooden planks also evoking the sound of a train building breath.
“The Underground Railroad” is closely held under embargo as I write, and the only interview I’ve read comes from England’s Empire magazine. Jenkins identifies a touchstone that makes all the sense in the mysterious world: the tactile yet mystical, ever-elusive Andrei Tarkovsky, and in particular, his journey into the ether of an otherworld in “Stalker.” The shoot of his series went on and on, Jenkins relates, and Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, borne on bare rails to the inside of the mind, became “the only thing I allowed myself to watch.”
“The ineffable,” Jenkins writes in a forceful director’s note. “There are hard images [here], images that speak forthrightly to the injustices inflicted upon my ancestors in the great making of this country and yet they could never truly sum the hardness of this most horrible condition, the American institution of slavery. And while I have done everything I can to present them forthrightly and without over-sensation, the fact of their existence is a hard thing to bear.”
The opening hour of his film bears the weight of a fallen world: its beginning has a sequence that splats with flesh and blood from a failed birth. The images, cut with brisk authority, are so specific that the heart stops, and yet it is carried and lifted by the montage of sound and music; the ever-observant chorus of insects that are as lucid as Nicholas Britell’s accompanying tapestry of score. Chirr and strum and breath withheld: That chunk of flesh that hits the rude floor and is nestled into the dark earth is the body of one, yet it is the body of all.
“It is for that reason that alongside those hard images I have also strove to pay respect to softer ones whose existence is no less emphatic,” Jenkins continues. “Whether that be a formerly enslaved woman marveling at her sublime reflection in a mirror, or an enslaved man sitting on a porch mending a toy for the children he did not conceive but whom he will raise as his sons; that same woman crying with joy at discovering her ability to love and be loved, to make love, images that are testament to the deep wells of fortitude that had to have been present in order for the descendants of those people to persevere and retain agency that they may one day use language to create testaments in their ancestors’ image.”
“The Underground Railroad” streams from May 14 on Amazon Prime.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.