The Underground Railroad

From Academy Award® winner Barry Jenkins and based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad chronicles Cora Randall’s (newcomer Thuso Mbedu) desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. After escaping a Georgia plantation for the rumored Underground Railroad, Cora discovers no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.

Over the course of her journey, Cora is pursued by Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a bounty hunter who is fixated on bringing her back to the plantation she escaped; especially since her mother Mabel is the only one he has never caught.

As she travels from state to state, Cora contends with the legacy of the mother that left her behind and her own struggles to realize a life she never thought was possible.

The Underground Railroad stars Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon and Joel Edgerton. Aaron Pierre, William Jackson Harper, Sheila Atim, Amber Gray, Peter De Jersey, Chukwudi Iwuji, Damon Herriman, Lily Rabe, Irone Singleton, Mychal-Bella Bowman, Marcus “MJ” Gladney, Jr., Will Poulter and Peter Mullan round out the cast.

Barry Jenkins serves as showrunner and directs all ten episodes of the limited series. He executive produces alongside Adele Romanski, Mark Ceryak, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Brad Pitt, Richard Heus, Jacqueline Hoyt and Colson Whitehead. The Underground Railroad is a production of Plan B, Pastel and Big Indie with Amazon Studios.


It is 8pm on March 11th, 2021, nearly a year to the day that I walked off the set of The Underground Railroad unsure (and yet undeniably sure) that the virus ravaging the world had come to ravage our production. Tonight, I am listening to Toni Morrison’s Nobel lecture because after 116 days of being relied upon to direct it is important to be directed, to give myself over to someone else’s doctrine.

The lecture, if you haven’t read or heard it, is a thesis, a grappling with everything framed through fable. In this fable, Ms. Morrison recites the story of a wise, blind woman visited by children. The children are holding a bird and have questioned the woman of whether the bird is living or dead. The children, in their cruel game, are here to test the blind woman, to smash away her clairvoyant esteem.

Ms. Morrison writes –

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know”, she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” Stepping outside the fable she has created, Ms. Morrison continues –

Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes.

As a student who believed this medium to be the vessel of their voice – to be language – I was forced to reckon with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. In a time where information was beyond my control, I was sat down to watch this film and not told its true title (The Clansman), but instead made aware of the artistic significance of the work as a reasoning for the continued presentation (nearly a century forth) of its horrendous imagery. Of the significance of its language.

Two decades on, I remain a student but of my own volition. In the hundred years since its creation, The Birth of a Nation has seen the impact of its language rise and fall. As the vanguard of a new medium, its insistence on a radical new form has given it a speed upon which its demagoguery has metastasized and endured. In reflecting upon what we’ve done in transporting Colson Whitehead’s searing work from page to screen and the gambit set forth by Griffith’s magnum opus, I find myself returning to Ms. Morrison’s thesis: language. Whose language? What language? And to what purpose?

From the beginning, I’ve feared this show. Before my second feature, Moonlight, ever premiered and through the production and release of my third, If Beale Street Could Talk, it has been the thing haunting me; stalking me, waiting for me in the shadows of dim rooms, at the edges of conversations. For so long, the notion of imagery such as those contained within this show has elicited feelings of shame, of trauma. The trauma arising from depictions of the American institution of slavery are so great that the very thought of creating such images is enough to bring forth this shame. And this shame is enough to mute, to taint those images to the point that the ethical questions regarding the efficacy of their existence potentially disallows their existence. In my ragged and incomplete sampling of peers and family, we simply are not ready to deal with these images. In my samplings, it was made clear to me that I should not make The Underground Railroad.

But if not now, when? As a student in this country educated in the public institutions created by the nation to educate and form its citizens, the imagery I speak of, if presented at all, is abridged, amended, curtailed and coded to protect the legacy that leads to the siren call of “making America great again.” Throughout my schooling in this country, if the topic of slavery was broached at all it was done so pithily, shoddily and, heinously, solely from January 15th to February 28th.

I’ve asked myself, who does this serve? The people clinging to States rights and monuments to men who fought to preserve the enslavement of my ancestors? For decades, the fight to correct the American historical narrative and create a more truthful history has been waged within the halls of academia and in the pages of literary works and journalistic periodicals. Between 1936 and 1938, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) collected more than 2,300 interviews with formerly enslaved people. The memories of these octo and nonagenarians were crisp time-capsules of a history that had been purposely disregarded as they lived out the balance of their lives. Imagine having lived as an enslaved person and in your lifetime enduring half-a-century of a nation’s industrial proliferation without even cursory debate regarding the legitimacy of reparations for victims of enslavement… to say nothing of their descendants. In 2019, Nikole Hannah-Jones launched The 1619 Project on the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival on our nation’s shores, a sweeping (and ongoing) endeavor that fills in redacted cavities of our historical record.

When I was a student, the WPA Slave Narrative Collection was not taught nor stocked in the libraries of my public school. If the state and local governments such as those in Arkansas, Iowa, and Mississippi (and counting) prevail, neither will The 1619 Project. The fact of both these withholdings from the students who will become the citizens shaping the future of this country weighs on me as I once again wrestle with the trauma and shame of creating images that speak to this dark history and whether that shame and trauma outstrip the efficacy of such images. To put it bluntly: Do we need to be reminded of the horrors of American slavery? Is it ethically or morally right to do so? And if so, why?

A possible answer was shown to me in a different form. In addition to The Birth of a Nation, the Film 101 syllabus included Schindler’s List, Night and Fog, and The Pawnbroker. The critical analysis of those films bridged out to The Diary of Anne Frank, Shoah, Come and See (and many others). There are differences here and I do not wish to compare or contrast the atrocities of the Holocaust with those of American slavery; the Holocaust occurred during a time in which the tools of reportage, documentation and archiving were plentiful and readily employed. However, it is not lost on me that roughly fifty years after the genocide that threatened the future of his ancestors Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List… while roughly fifty years after the conclusion of the genocide perpetrated by his ancestors, D.W. Griffith gave us The Birth of a Nation. Discarding Griffith’s racist agitprop and finding communion with Mr. Spielberg’s noble effort makes one thing abundantly clear: the trauma is real but… the shame is not ours.

Which brings me back to the question: “If not now, when?” As a nation, we are watching far more than we are reading. Despite the abundance of thorough, engrossing and illuminating work composed on the subject of American slavery by academics and journalists alike, the subject of reparations for the descendants of enslaved people has never been given due process and the slogan “Make America Great Again” both catapulted a trickster into the White House and emboldened his acolytes to wave the flag of the Confederacy in the halls of Congress and erect a hangman’s noose on the steps of the nation’s capital. If not now, when? When will it be appropriate to unravel the myth of American exceptionalism perpetrated through the manipulation of history and language by wielding a more truthful presentation of history through clear and unflinching language?

Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable. – Toni Morrison

The ineffable. There are hard images in this show, 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. 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. 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.

I must end this now. When I was a child, a teacher spoke the words “Underground Railroad” and I saw images of Black folks building and working and thriving on vessels of their own creation far beneath the ground. In that moment, everything felt possible. Despite the shoddy conditions of my impoverished life at the time and what felt like a constant closing, the entire world opened to me. In that moment, I placed no limitations on my ancestors and the magic they were capable of making. To this day, it is the one of the most whole feelings I’ve experienced in my forty-one years of life. For me, this show is a return to that feeling with the eyes of an adult in place of the innocence of a child, a memory of conjuring soft images where hard ones were stricken from the record, hidden from view. This balancing act, the tension between hard and soft images, the need to tell the truth without being devoured by the barbarity of that truth, is without question the hardest undertaking I have ever attempted in my creative life.

On a location scout, I stood in a cotton field and a wave of anger and sadness took hold of me. In that moment, I debated whether to film the field or purchase the land and burn it to the ground. I saw the conundrum as a thing my ancestors who stood in that very field could never have imagined and then… I realized they must have imagined it. How else could they have endured?

They imagined it the same as I had when I heard the words “Underground Railroad” and imagined them, without question or hesitation, piloting themselves through will and grit and savvy and might. Here was that feeling again, all around me as I stood on blood-soaked Georgia soil listening to my ancestors. Something clear before solidified then – This show… is for them.

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