BAZ BAMIGBOYE: Heartbreaking ride on The Underground Railroad

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Played with rare determination by South African actress Thuso Mbedu, Cora has fled her shackles in Georgia because she wants to know what freedom feels like.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins had Donald Trump’s catchphrase ‘Make America Great Again’ in mind as we discussed his breathtaking ten-part television adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel The Underground Railroad.

It tells the story of Cora, a 14-year-old girl who escapes from a southern plantation.

“She’s a young woman born into the state of American slavery, but she’s also been abandoned by her mother … she always doubts her worth,” Jenkins told me.

Played with rare determination by South African actress Thuso Mbedu, Cora has fled her shackles in Georgia because she wants to know what freedom feels like.

It’s a poignant and sometimes poetic story, although there is also horror. Because Jenkins felt he had a responsibility to “tell the truth – and show the truth” of the hell the slaves had to endure.

“Nothing in this is even remotely as gruesome as the worst, or even the mean things that actually happened,” he said.

Still, he had to make “the truth” seem real. Real enough that the public would understand why Cora, along with her boyfriend Caesar (superbly played by British theater actor Aaron Pierre), had to flee.

“I don’t think everything we show is unnecessary,” Jenkins said, because worse things happened.

There is a scene where Big Anthony, a large black man, is hung with his wrists over a fire, his flesh serrated by a whip.

While dangling, the plantation owner and his guests eat and drink at a beautifully laid out table on the lawn. The “punishment” this man suffers is their entertainment.

It was too much for the director. “I had to walk away for ten minutes,” he said.

This brought us back to his Trumpian musings. How can we say ‘Make America Great Again! without acknowledging what America was and always has been? ‘ he asked. “These people put up with and sacrificed so much of themselves.”

When Jenkins cast Thuso as Cora, he spoke to her before the shooting began “because I was concerned about her well-being.”

“I can’t imagine how hard it was for her,” he said over Zoom from Los Angeles.

And she's been hunted all the while.  By Arnold Ridegway: A southern, more gruesome version of Javert in Les Miserables, played by Joel Edgerton.  And by Homer (the aptly named Chase W. Dillon), the young black boy who is as adept as his master Ridgeway at tracking down human quarries

And she’s been hunted all the while. By Arnold Ridegway: A southern, more gruesome version of Javert in Les Miserables, played by Joel Edgerton. And by Homer (the aptly named Chase W. Dillon), the young black boy who is as adept as his master Ridgeway at tracking down human quarries

There’s a poignant moment when Cora and Caesar talk about what life should be like when you’re free, and he shows her a copy of Gulliver’s Travels and reads her a passage.

“The horizon-expanding use of Caesar’s storytelling” was a key element of Whitehead’s book that Jenkins and the five writers who put together the 500-page screenplay wanted to keep.

Of course, the underground railway – the term used for the escape route used by runaway slaves – did exist. But the book envisions a real railway running underground, with conductors and secret tracks built deep into the ground.

It’s a fantastic element of The Underground Railroad, but Jenkins’ steady hand, as director of all ten episodes (expected on Amazon Prime from May 14), keeps us grounded in reality as Cora criss-crosses from Georgia to South. and North Carolina. , to Tennessee and beyond.

And she’s been hunted all the while. By Arnold Ridegway: A southern, yet vile version of Javert in Les Miserables, played by Joel Edgerton. And by Homer (the aptly named Chase W. Dillon), the young black boy who is as adept as his master Ridgeway at tracking human quarries.

Of course, the underground railway - the term used for the escape route used by runaway slaves - did exist.  But the book envisions a real railroad running underground, with conductors and secret tracks built deep into the ground

Of course, the underground railway – the term used for the escape route used by runaway slaves – did exist. But the book envisions a real railroad running underground, with conductors and secret tracks built deep into the ground

Cora tries to stay one step ahead of the couple. But her journey isn’t just a panic-fueled flight – it’s a journey into her soul. She is bitter that her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), has left her. But she continues to propel herself.

The Underground Railroad doesn’t just look great, it sounds great too. The score by composer Nicholas Britell hits just the right note; and Jenkins ends each chapter (as the episodes are called) with music depicting what we just saw.

There’s Runnin ‘from The Pharcyde; I Want To Be Ready by Kool Blues; I Wanna Be Where You Are by Michael Jackson and Hey U by Groove Theory (I hope you know what I’ve been through?).

In short, it is popular art at its best. No wonder Brad Pitt and his Plan B company chose to produce it along with Jenkins’ own PASTEL productions.

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