In a sea of recent dramas showcasing the portrayal of slavery, Barry Jenkins’ ‘The Underground Railroad’ paves a different path away from black trauma – towards black triumph.
Just five years ago, on the cusp of a rising success of his Oscar-winning hit film, ‘Moonlight’, Jenkins discovered Colson Whitehead’s novel, ‘The Underground Railroad’ – a tale so riveting it had to transition from page to screen.
“[The Underground Railroad series is] more about resistance than endurance; that’s inspiring to me,” says William Jackson Harper who plays opposite of another stand-out star, Thuso Mbedu (Cora) as the character, Royal – a character every bit as regal, assertive and attention-grabbing as his name.
“It made reading the book, which I was really afraid of, a much more digestible thing to have the black characters have all of the agency and decide to change their circumstances,” Harper says of the captivating10-episode series.
Over a few years, Colson and Jenkins collaborated in bringing ‘The Underground Railroad’ to the big screen, shooting within the confines of Georgia and wrapping just before the Covid-19 pandemic made its wave.
“Honestly [before the pandemic], we were just living life and doing things and trying to finish this story and tell this story as truthfully as possible,” says Harper.
In telling the story as authentically as possible, each character appears to have their own storyline and development, with some backstories inspired from an oral history from those with accounts of slavery and the underground railroad in the south during the 1850s. Joel Edgerton, who plays the role of Ridgeway, a determined bounty hunter fixated on capturing Cora.
Throughout the series, the audience is taken on a journey alongside Cora, as she makes her way across South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana through the use of an immersive and equally impressive underground railroad system. Viewers might find themselves holding their breath as they witness Cora narrowly escaping being re-enslaved by Ridgeway, in addition to the horrors of graphic lynchings, and brutal treatment of those around her that she encounters along the way.
According to Mbedu and Harper, the cast routinely hosted game nights to help each other decompress after intense shoots. Recalling some of their activities, Harper recounts bowling and karaoke nights, taking a moment to joke about “the top golf [game] where Thuso would throw her club out into the middle of the green.”
While Harper says their game nights helped, there was “the other part of …. being able to just shake it off between takes as long as it doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of the scene.” “Everything feels so real because our props and costumes were just so real that it didn’t take anything to drop back in,” Harper recalls.
While the storyline of this series is engaging, the cast wardrobe and set design draped in historical accuracy are enough to truly bring the viewers in and keep them engrossed.
“I definitely feel like you watch [this series] and as far as fictional characters….real stuff is the foundation for everything in the show,” says Edgerton.
Utilizing research of the history of slavery, as well as trying to place himself in the shoes of his character, Edgerton found a way to see Ridgeway from a different perspective.
“For all my intentions in wanting to play villains, [Ridgeway] is really the kind of villain that you know, [you should] be careful what you wish for, but because of Barry I was willing to go there,” says Joel with a chuckle.
“This story is such an epic journey, so special and heroic in its own way that even by playing the villain you can participate in something heroic, something special,” Edgerton says.
The Underground Railroad truly makes the viewer feel as if they are taken back into a time in history where many parallels can be drawn and connected to today in light of recent events within the black community.
You can watch this gripping limited series on Friday, May 14th, 2021 on Amazon Prime Video.