The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins
Still courtesy of Criterion

‘The Underground Railroad’ and Cinema’s Origins in White Supremacy

In adapting the alternative history The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins and his crew made cinema – a medium with origins in white supremacy – work for them.

The Underground Railroad
Barry Jenkins
Criterion Collection
25 April 2024

How could such a bitter thing become a means of pleasure? Everything on Valentine [farm] was the opposite. Work needn’t be suffering; it could unite folks. A bright child like Chester might thrive and prosper, as Molly and her friends did. A mother raise her daughter with love and kindness. A beautiful soul like Chester could be anything he wanted here, all of them could be: own a spread, be a schoolteacher, fight for colored rights. Even be a poet … Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.

– Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Moving pictures appear at that juncture when a new racial regime was being stitched together from remnants of its predecessors and new cloth accommodating the disposal of immigrants, colonial subjects, and insurgencies among the native poor. With the first attempts at composing a national identity in disarray, a new whiteness became the basis for the reintegration of American society.

– Cedric J. Robinson, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning

Cinema was forged from the twin fires of the industrial age and settler colonialism. Originating from the Global North, it quickly spread its tentacles elsewhere, championing itself as the newest Western technology that projected illuminated visions of Western modernity and progress abroad while documenting those cultures from the edges of imperial expansion to serve as cinematic fodder for audiences back home. Despite its global outreach, cinema was a deeply nationalist project.

Within the United States, motion pictures appeared shortly after the failure of Reconstruction, one of the most ambitious attempts to redress centuries of systemic racism and anti-Blackness on which the nation was founded upon. Vast labor unrest and a staggering economic crisis accompanied the post-Reconstruction era, causing alarm to the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant founders of the nation who were belatedly coming to realize that waves of Black, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, and other forms of immigrant laborers could potentially threaten their control. Cinema and Jim Crow segregation became core practices in enforcing a new racial regime.

Black studies professor Cedric J. Robinson stresses the importance of D.W. Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of the Nation (1915) in cementing and popularizing the representations of this new racial regime. Despite some protests from the recently formed NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and other Black organizations and Black newspapers, the film became a box office hit in both the North and South and was endorsed by President of the United States Woodrow Wilson “like writing history with lightning.”

Robinson writes, “What Griffith consciously had served as midwife for was the birth of a new, virile American whiteness, unencumbered by the historical memory of slavery, or being enslaved, undaunted by the spectacle of racial humiliation so suddenly manufactured by the shock of poor white immigrants arriving in the cities . . ..” We have been wrestling with the white supremacist inheritances of cinema ever since, as the #OscarsSoWhite movement briefly reminded the general public in 2015.

Nonwhite directors, screenwriters, and other creative personnel have been attempting to wrest back control of cinema to offer more accurate representations of their communities and relay their collective and individual inner desires ever since people like filmmakers Oscar Micheaux and Marion E. Wong appeared on the scene during the 1910s. Like any institution birthed from white supremacy, cinema was a fraught terrain but worth fighting over. Colson Whitehead, the author of The Underground Railroad (2016), poses the challenge that Black and other non-white cultural workers confront when his novel reflects upon the workings of a Black-controlled farm during slavery. How “could such a bitter thing become a means of pleasure?” We could ask this about the novel, theater, cinema, television, and countless other mediums that have been used to bolster white supremacist visions of the nation-state.

However, no medium is static and beholden to its vexed origins. It changes and develops. It becomes more dynamic and less regimented as more diverse communities seize control to claim their vision and voice. “Freedom,” Whitehead writes, “was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.” This can be no better encapsulated than by Berry Jenkins and his crew’s creation of the 2021 Amazon limited series The Underground Railroad.

After the phenomenal success of Moonlight (2016), Jenkins realized he had a limited window of opportunity to engage in an ambitious project that he was fairly certain would never arise again. He tells Brett Goldstein during an interview on the podcast Films to Be Buried With: “I knew I had probably the most cultural or industry capital I’m ever going to have. And I knew I would need a certain amount of resources to pull this show off. And so it felt like, this is how I am going to pay forward all the gains I’ve made from this very unexpected success of Moonlight.” Even in light of this, Jenkins mentions throughout his commentary over the multiple episodes of The Underground Railroad that financing during the beginning of the series was uncertain, causing them to cut corners during early shooting until more financial stability arose.

Making The Underground Railroad posed two main challenges for Jenkins. First: How do you translate a Pulitzer Prize-winning book to the screen? Second, like all of his film projects have confronted: How can we carve out space for Black characters, subjectivities, relationships, and communities in a medium steeped in anti-Blackness?

Regarding the second point, the series indirectly addresses it during episode eight, “Indiana Autumn”. A young Black girl recites the Declaration of Independence in a wooden Church on Valentine farm. This recitation harkens back to episode one, “Georgia”, set on the Randall plantation, where the lead character Cora (Thuso Mbedu), finds herself enslaved. One of the slaveowners displays one of his slaves, Michael, who can recite the Declaration, as a spectacle – a parlor trick for visiting guests. Yet, in this instance, Randall is informed that Michael has been beaten to death by an overseer due to not working hard enough. Randall enlists another Black child to recite the Declaration, who has difficulty doing so. The child is subsequently beaten with a cane until Cora steps in to protect him, receiving a hard blow to her temple that leaves a distinguishing scar that plagues her throughout the rest of her journey.

In episode eight, one might assume that the Black girl reciting the Declaration of Independence operates as a spectacle, too. However, in this case, it is for an all-Black audience with aspirations to take the Declaration of Independence to its word. This is relayed through a montage of images as we hear the girl’s recitation in voice-over: young kids playing and frolicking in fields, men standing guard armed at the farm’s perimeter, women serving a meal, a man carting wood in a wheelbarrow. The camera glides throughout each sequence, never stopping, suggesting an ease, a movement uncontained by the surrounding frame. A grace of camera movement matches the eloquence of the girl’s recitation of the Declaration with a classical score playing underneath it all.

Furthermore, we hear the more critical section of the Declaration of Independence: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and provide new Guards for their future security.” Tellingly, during this moment, the camera enters the church, panning over its congregants and then focusing in on the girl, her image growing, punctuating the importance of what she states and the power of suggesting alternative forms of government that could be more representative than the current slave-owning one.

Later, Cora questions Gloria Valentine (Amber Gray) if the children comprehend what they are saying. Gloria responds that they don’t, but “what they don’t understand today, they might tomorrow.” She continues, “Take the Declaration, for example. It’s like a map. You trust that it’s right, but you only know when you go and test for yourself.” Cora further questions her, “You really believe that?” Gloria confesses, “Of course not, Cora. I’m a colored woman living in America. But everybody’s got to go test it for themselves.” Within this exchange, we see both the limitations and utopian possibilities that the characters are wrestling with in terms of the Declaration of Independence and America in general.

Out of slavery, the Valentines freed themselves and established a farm run by and for Black people. The farm’s very existence embodies some of the core principles of the Declaration of Independence that the document itself never intended to bestow upon Black people. The same can be said of cinema. Jenkins and his largely Black crew work within a medium that has been colonized since its origins. Yet they work within this problematic medium to test its limitations and potentialities in relaying a story centered on Black communities and individuals who are confronting the horrors of slavery and white supremacy while maintaining their humanity and community whenever possible.

Regarding the first challenge, translating Whitehead’s novel to the screen, Jenkins smartly emphasizes his talents as a filmmaker and the power of cinema to convey the story over the power of Colson’s words and the depth a novel can provide. The series is a very different experience than reading the novel, although the ultimate plot trajectory remains the same. The book centers on the intergenerational relations between Cora, her mother, Mabel, and her grandmother, Ajarry. Mabel’s presence is marginalized in the series. Ajarry is non-existent. Cora also becomes the novel’s fulcrum, with narrative details and a subjective depth that the series cannot offer if it wants to limit itself to around 11 hours. However, in place of this, the series prioritizes a sense of community and possibility that the novel cannot fully convey.

In particular, the show highlights a sense of Black beauty that accompanies this sense of community and possibility that has rarely been seen on the screen other than the few examples provided by independent Black filmmakers like Spike Lee, Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, and, more recently, Steve McQueen in his brilliant Small Axe series that I reviewed for PopMatters. The novel mentions how music reminds Cora “that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude”. Jenkins takes the opportunity that cinema provides to expand this humanity through the power of sight and sound.

During the Criterion Blu-ray commentary of The Underground Railroad, Jenkins emphasizes the importance of the opening of the show where we see a rush of images occur that encapsulate various moments throughout the series: Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a slave catcher pursuing Cora, and Cora fall down a hole; Mabel (Sheila Atlm) births Cora; the oncoming light of an approaching train; Ceasar (Aaron Pierre), who initiates his and Cora’s escape, runs in reverse slow-motion through a field; Royal (William Jackson Harper), a Black rebel who later frees Cora from Ridgeway, walks with hands up in a field; Grace (Mychal-Belle Bowan), a young Black girl Cora stowaways in an attic, in silhouette before a fire; Jasper (Calvin Leon Smith), a Black fugitive who Cora encounters while being apprehended by Ridgeway, stands motionless before a smoldering landscape with a bare tree and an abandoned wagon. Discordant music plays under these images. They are more sense impressions than anything definitive, a chronicling of the important characters Cora will encounter.

The series’ opening stresses the relationships between Cora and others. Furthermore, the show announces its unique approach to the runaway slave genre. The Underground Railroad series will not take a solely realist approach that will only emphasize the trauma and suffering endured by Black people under slavery. Poetry and experimentation will be key coordinates in relaying the experiences, the relations, and the emotions of the main characters that slavery cannot confine. The opening reveals how the series pushes against the limitations of the narrative convention by making space for the poetic and experimental techniques, which embrace the textures of Black life and experience that reliance upon narrative alone cannot address. Jenkins refers to this opening as embodying a “great time” when past, present, and future converge, troubling narrative logic, and the regimentation of plantation life.

As mentioned earlier, episode eight of The Underground Railroad series provides a temporary utopian moment that takes us to Indiana to the Black-run Valentine farm. Classical music plays, a girl recites the Declaration of Independence, and the camera sweeps across sequences of the farm and various elements of Black life. This is followed by Gloria speaking before the farm’s inhabitants, who sit at a long table draped in a white tablecloth with wine bottles set along it, the spoils from the vineyard kept for themselves when not selling to the white people in town. She honors the farm through a speech as the camera glides along the table, Gloria as its pivot, and everyone looks towards and listens to her.

This all occurs during a magisterial single take, revealing the skill between actors and camera operators. We observe the period dresses, suits, and other farm outfits the characters wear, a living embodiment of a not-so-distant past when enslavement does not completely define Black life but, nonetheless, weighs heavily upon it.

During the commentary of this episode, Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton, speak about how, during this point of the shoot, the cast and crew felt in synch with one another. Money troubles for the show became less of a concern. As a result, the show took on a certain amount of improvisational energy in terms of filming. Rather than strictly storyboarding the shots and camera movement, Jenkins and Laxton became more open to the possibilities of the shoot, such as the shot over the table when Gloria speaks. They wanted master shots, those that are not cut up into segments, to define more of the sequences in their fluency and wide angles that could better capture the community and its surrounding landscape. Jenkins mentions that one guiding concern was “how to find some grounded beauty in this environment.”

As a result of this approach, unexpected moments occurred, such as a chance encounter between Gloria and Rumsey Brooks (Donald Elise Watkins), a Black poet and freeman who is visiting the farm. Jenkins detected some flirting between the actors on the set, so he managed to capture ten minutes between official takes with the actors alone. Grace wears a knitted white shawl, sipping a glass of wine, and spots Brooks in the distance, dressed in a dapper black outfit with gold trim. She stares at him, entranced, sipping her wine, taking him in before complimenting his poetry.

She then asks: “If I give you my sorrows, would you make them sound pretty?” The camera floats between them in one take, equally entranced by their beauty and connection, while the setting sun casts its bronze light onto them. He kneels before her, gently takes her hand in his outstretched palms, and asks her to give him her sorrows. She tenderly places her hand in his, and no more words are exchanged. It is moments like these that Jenkins excels at, as we have seen in other films like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, where the narrative temporarily halts to provide an unsuspecting moment of connection between characters, revealing the possibility that every moment of each day holds.

The Underground Railroad does not overlook the trauma and pain of slavery. It always attempts to position them in this bigger scope of Black life that can temporarily keep them at bay. We see this in episode nine, “Indiana Winter”, when Cora and Royal finally consecrate their relationship in one of the most visually stunning sequences of the series. Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” plays over the soundtrack as Cora and Royal are illuminated warmly by a nearby fire. Briefly, Cora looks directly towards us as the camera approaches her, signaling this special moment where voyeurism is disrupted by acknowledging and inviting us into this world, into this special moment.

Other couples, such as Gloria and Brooks, dance around the fire as well. Suddenly, the sequence cuts inside a room with Royal holding Cora tenderly, disrobed. He caresses her arm until she gently directs his hand to the small of her back, leading his hand to feel the scars that mark her back from brutal whippings. His fingers trace them slowly. The shot cuts to Cora’s eyes tearing up, looking over Royal’s bare shoulder. It is a complex moment where intimacy, trauma, and beauty combine. It signals an instance where “great time” converges again, where the past manifests itself during this intimate moment, but it doesn’t define it. It must be acknowledged and recognized, but ultimately, the future seizes hold where a new relationship between Cora and Royal takes shape before the flickering firelight of the room. They look at each other, taking each other in. Royal allows Cora to touch his chest before close-ups of them follow, with Royal whispering, “I love you” to her. A pause before their bodies descend towards the bed out of frame.

Words fail to fully convey eloquent moments like those between Royal and Cora and Grace and Brooks, which define The Underground Railroad. They are poetic moments that only cinema can capture. Perhaps most rewarding of the Criterion box set is the inclusion of the teasers Jenkins created for the film and his hour-long experimental film The Gaze. He made the teasers while the series was in post-production but on a temporary hiatus because of the pandemic. Introducing the teasers, Jenkins recalls that the post-production process was too slow “to get that energy into the narrative episodes.” He directed his editor to cut the footage where this energy could be captured.  

Ultimately, Jenkins suggests that the teasers were therapy for him in knowing “that there was something special in these images from the show.” As a result, the teasers serve as two-minute poetic vignettes, unshackled from narrative to embrace a particular moment, such as the gliding camera over the plantation fields where enslaved men and women stand still, a tableau, staring back at us. There is grace and beauty despite the surrounding hardship and oppression. It provides respite and reckoning as the characters break the fourth wall and draw us into their world. Their gazes create a bridge between the past and present, interrogating their relationship and the inheritances of slavery, survival, and community that stretch into our modern world. 

Likewise, Jenkins began creating The Gaze while making the series. The material originated from test shots as actors stood motionless in costume and make-up on location to judge how well they filmed. But as Jenkins looked on, he felt “I was seeing the living embodiment of my ancestors” and realized that he needed to create a short film from this material. The only direction he gave to the actors was, “Show me yourself.” We get a compelling series of tableaus of largely motionless actors standing before the location in wardrobe, staring directly at us. The camera movement, a dolly shot of the exact same length towards and back from the actors, defined each sequence.

During his introduction to The Gaze, Jenkins relays the power of the experience. He highlights one moment where a middle-aged Black female named Ms. Wendy stares at us in the woods before a series of shacks. The woman was not an actress but an advisor to the series for what life on a plantation would be like. She had advised on many other films before this. But after the shoot, she broke down crying, telling Jenkins that despite her lengthy film career, this was the first time she was recognized on camera, not simply behind it.

The Gaze creates an entrancing experience, where the repetition of shots and camera movements, along with the beautiful film score, lulls the viewer into an hour of carefully lit sequences that equalize the actors with no regard to their roles as leads or extras or Black or white, men or women. The Gaze embraces them all equally with the best lighting, costuming, and make-up that can be provided. It is an indirect response to the Jim Crow segregation that defined much of Hollywood during its early years when directors like D.W. Griffith wouldn’t even allow Black male actors and white female actors to occupy the same space on the set.

In addition to offering spaces for beauty and intimacy, The Underground Railroad series also deeply respects its Black characters’ varying points of view. In episode nine, John Valentine (Peter De Jersey) debates Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji) about the fate of the farm. Should they remain where they are but limit who can belong to the farm, excluding runaway slaves and those wanted for crimes like Cora? Or should they upend the farm and search for another location where white hostility towards the farm’s existence wouldn’t be such a threat, and all can remain? Mingo advocates for the first position, whereas Valentine champions the latter. After the debate, all farm members will vote on its fate.

Gloria introduces the men as we see various shots of people within the church where the debate occurs. Valentine magnanimously gestures toward Mingo so that he can initiate the debate. The camera moves toward Mingo, who begins:

“I was born into slavery, and I bought my way out with honest labor. Bought myself out. Bought my family out. One day’s wage at a time. Here at Valentine, we accomplished the impossible. Not everyone has the character we do. We are not all going to make it. Sorry, but, we ain’t. Some of us is far too gone. Slavery has twisted their minds. You seen these lost ones on the plantations, on the streets of towns and cities, those who will not, cannot respect themselves. And you seen them here, receiving the grace of this place but unable to fit in. It is too late for them. And to risk what we built for their sake is unwise and unnecessary.”

Mingo then gestures for Valentine to speak. The camera slides towards Valentine. This lack of a hard cut between the two speakers, but a smooth transition, illustrates how the series refuses to cast them as enemies holding completely oppositional views, but instead representative of a spectrum of views that both attempt to outline the best future course for the farm. Valentine speaks:

“Brother Mingo makes some good points. We can’t save everybody. But that don’t mean we can’t try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Well, here’s one delusion for you. We can escape slavery, that we can buy our way out from under its scourge. Scars will never fade even on skin like mine. It will always be with us … Did you ever think you would sit here without chains, without the yoke with a new family?”

Valentine briefly turns to Mingo and states, “Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick. Yet here you are.” He turns back to the congregation: “Valentine Farm is a delusion. Who told you that the Negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering argued otherwise. But every fact of history, it can exist, so this place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are.”

The men generously allow each other to speak, arguing back and forth their positions for this 15-minute sequence. Throughout, we get reaction shots of the congregation, taking in and responding to each man’s words. The men before them are representative of the spectrum of opinions towards the farm’s fate. The sequence’s desire to allow the arguments to play themselves out is reminiscent of what we see from Ken Loach, a British director who prides himself on making films featuring working-class characters and political situations like the Spanish Civil War and the Irish Revolution, where a wide variety of political opinions are allowed to develop.

Unfortunately, in this instance, a vote never takes place afterward since the farm is attacked by white vigilantes midway through the debate. Tellingly, after this massacre unfolds for the remaining 20 minutes of the episode – killing many of the lead characters we care about and watching Cora’s escape and her retribution upon the slave catcher Ridgeway – the screen cuts to black. We hear Childish Gambino’s “This is America“, a commentary not only on the massacre and its anti-Black violence but also on the earlier sequences of the episode, like the debate and the ability to carve out space, temporarily, for autonomy and self-determination.

The only critique of The Underground Railroad series is its amount of attention to Ridgeway, the slave catcher. We get enmeshed in an Oedipal drama between Ridgeway and Mack (Irone Singleton), a freeman who grows up with him and is favored by Ridgeway’s abolitionist father. Episode six wallows in Ridgeway’s resentments against his father, Mack, and Cora’s mother, whom he had been commissioned to catch years before but never had. He progressively gets drunker until Cora chains him to a bed and flees. Mack comes across Ridgeway in his inebriated and shackled state. Ridgeway laments to Mack that although he knew his father loved him, “he admired you, and I was jealous, so angry.”

Such moments reveal an interesting dynamic that complicates Ridgeway’s character as a slave catcher by having a Black friend of whom he always felt jealous. However, given that other elements of Whitehead’s novel could have used development in the series, like that of Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, the attention to Ridgeway in Jenkins’ series seems excessive and unnecessary. Perhaps it’s a defensive position to assure viewers that even slave catchers like Ridgeway have traumas that haunt them.

Regardless, Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad masterfully navigates addressing the horrors and traumas of slavery while still recognizing how the complex relations, affections, and intelligence of various Black communities not only persist but prevail. The series is not simply a reckoning with the United State’s past in ways that states like that of Florida, Texas, and elsewhere attempt, in our times, to cast aside by marginalizing and censoring Black history with reactionary legislation. Equally important, The Underground Railroad imagines a new cinematic terrain that challenges the Jim Crow inheritances and white supremacy that still guides much of Hollywood cinema and commercial television, despite some polemical commentators complaining about the entertainment industry’s “liberalism”. The show serves as a model for reclaiming deeply fraught cultural space that might have been forged from reactionary origins but can be wrested from them through ingenuity, experimentation, and sheer will.

RATING 9 / 10