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'The Underground Railroad' asks America to reckon with our shame, our trauma and our lies

NBC News logo NBC News 5/13/2021 Aramide A. Tinubu
a man wearing a hat © Provided by NBC News

Barry Jenkins' limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Underground Railroad," is not an easy watch; stories about the enslaved never are. Yet, this glorious television event — stunningly shot, dense and heartbreaking, grounded in both the horrors of the age and the rich, mesmerizing performances of stars Thuso Mbedu and Aaron Pierre — is as important as it is impactful. If we refuse to tell the true history of this country's deeply embedded racism and the journey of Black Americans across all mediums, we are doomed to remain in an endless time loop, continually repeating our past.

In recent years, after mainstream — usually white — praise of films such as "12 Years A Slave," "Django" and the television thriller "Underground," there has been a lot of pushback from Black critics about the plethora of stories centering slavery, Black pain and the antebellum South.

It's easy to understand why the elevation of enslaved people's narratives by white critics became tiresome for Black people. The Black community experiences endless microaggressions, overt racism and violence every day. Therefore, to see only the movies and shows in which people who look like them are shackled, bound and owned represented as praiseworthy by the mainstream — especially when many of those movies and shows, such as “Lincoln” and “Free State of Jones” were made by white people — was too much to bear. The more graphic and gruesome that these stories were, it felt, the more they seemed to be revered.

Those frustrations and the anger when it comes to narratives about the enslaved are valid; even when those criticisms are not, work like this is difficult to watch.

And yet, in the past decade, with an an influx of more inclusive shows — such as HBO's "I May Destroy You," Starz's "P-Valley," CBS' "The Equalizer," and Netflix's "The Upshaws" — Hollywood's apparent compulsion to validate stories about enslaved people's pain has given way to at least some desire to showcase Black joy.

While the conditions that created the backlash against art like "The Underground Railroad" have been mitigated to some degree, it does become harder to argue against Black art overall. Given that there are more Black romances, science fiction projects, dramas and even musicals, stories like "The Underground Railroad" have a place today as well. To shove the door closed on these stories is a disservice to our community; our ancestors' lives and experiences make up the fabric of who we are as a people.

And what a place in the canon this occupies. Grounded in the absolute atrocities of the era — from sexual violence to the visual of bloodied broken flesh being stripped from human bone — "The Underground Railroad" is a taxing, eerie and unvarnished odyssey. Jenkins forces his audience to sit and reckon with what's displayed on the screen; the series will lock you in and weigh you down. All 10-episodes of Jenkins' "The Underground Railroad" — save for episode seven, titled "Fanny Briggs"— are challenging, but they are also gifts.

"The Underground Railroad" begins on a Georgia cotton plantation, where Cora Randall (a devastatingly fantastic Mbedu) is an outcast amongst the enslaved community. Abandoned as a young girl by her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), who ran off and left her behind, Cora is angry and suspicious. Still, she catches the eye of the brilliant Caesar (Pierre), a man whose mind stretches far beyond the confines of the Randall Plantation, into the texts of "Gulliver's Travels," and toward the freedom that he knows he's owed.

When conditions on the Randall Plantation worsen following a change in ownership, Cora and Caesar sprint into the night toward a literal train network — the real-life Underground Railroad, made visible with actual stations and conductors that transport runaways to the North.

Cora travels from Georgia, through the Carolinas, into Tennessee and beyond, encountering people like the gentle Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman) and the determined Royal (William Jackson Harper). With slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his right hand, a little Black boy named Homer (Chase W. Dillion) on her heels, Cora encounters more horrors and sprinkles of hope than she's ever experienced in her life.

Along the way, what she realizes is that only she can give herself the salvation she seeks because so much of what she reckons with — along with the violence, rage and trauma — is shame. Shame haunts Cora, burrowing into her memories at every corner, allowing her little respite.

This sense of shame also lingers over the Black community when grappling with enslavement and what Black people were forced to endure during the peculiar institution; the pain of the past is why many people scoff at what they label "slave stories." But shame, as Cora learns in her journey toward freedom, is a weapon of white supremacy, made to burden us in one breath and make us willfully dismissive in another.

"The Underground Railroad" shatters the false narrative of America's "greatness," allowing the truth to be revealed and placed front and center. It is a reminder that we can not continue to allow the lies of anti-Blackness, let alone those of how the United States came to be, to fester.

If "The Underground Railroad" and Cora's story tell us nothing else, it's that you cannot outrun your traumas. They will haunt you — running you down across state lines and into future centuries and later generations — unless you address them head-on, however terrifying they may be.


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