“An extraordinary adaptation: hallucinatory, magical, allegorical and yet permanently in the pursuit of historical and eternal truths, the resurrection of lost perspectives and the uplifting of unheard voices.” —Lucy Mangan, The Guardian
An essential reckoning with American history, The Underground Railroad revolves around the flight of Cora, a young enslaved woman, from the Georgia plantation where she was born and her pursuit by a relentless slave catcher. Cora is aided by a network of people who provide a subterranean train service for fugitives. Barry Jenkins, who brilliantly adapted Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning magnum opus for the screen, thanked Whitehead for giving him back his childhood with the novel, remarking that he remembers being a kid and “hearing the words underground railroad and literally seeing—not even imagining, seeing—my ancestors building trains and tunnels that ran underground.”
Jenkins renders Whitehead’s uncanny, parallel-universe antebellum American South with exacting realism, grounding its fantastical elements with a meticulous attention to the physical world the characters traverse. The sophisticated precision and clarity of the sound design—from the hum of insects to the creak of wooden floorboards and the steam hiss and metal clank of locomotives—creates a sense of space. It also suggests the heightened sense of awareness—required for survival—of the fugitives and the enslaved. Cinematographer James Laxton’s camera deliberately scans and circles the action, allowing viewers time to absorb and appreciate the details of landscapes, interiors, and haunting, cavernous tunnels, as well as the powerful, affecting performances.
Moving through five states, all of which suggest different eras from antebellum through reconstruction, The Underground Railroad demonstrates various forms of racist exploitation and white supremacy to which Black people were, and too often still are, subjected, along with the strategies of resistance and self-preservation developed in response. As Reggie Ugwu noted in the New York Times, as well as confronting the physical violence of slavery, Jenkins’s adaptation addresses “something subtler, about the psychic and emotional scourge, and the unfathomable spiritual strength required for any individual—let alone an entire people—to have come out alive.”
The epic scope of the narrative—which includes the stories of numerous protagonists with whom Cora interacts—suits the episodic form, and having it available to stream allows viewers expansive access to this indispensable work. But Jenkins’s exquisite artistry also demands the opportunity for attentive viewing in a theatrical context. BAMPFA welcomes Jenkins to present and discuss all ten episodes this March.
—Kate MacKay, Associate Film Curator
BAMPFA members: $11
UC Berkeley students: $7
UC Berkeley faculty and staff, non-UC Berkeley students, disabled persons, ages 65+, and 18 & under: $12
BAMPFA’s second-feature discount does not apply to these programs.