Content warning: Descriptions of violence and mild spoilers are ahead. As far as Amazon Prime’s newest drama The Underground Railroad is concerned, people familiar with the fabled slavery escape system remembered throughout history are wrong. In this 10-episode limited series — based on the 2016 novel by Colson Whitehead and helmed by Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins — viewers are taken to an alternate reality: here, abolitionist Harriet Tubman wasn’t the person responsible for leading slaves seeking freedom to safety points across specific routes while on foot. Instead, an actual railway system constructed by slaves, complete with steam locomotives and multiple underground stations, assists runaways in their quest for freedom. But despite The Underground Railroad being a retelling of the known U.S. slavery and slave trade narrative, it doesn’t gloss over what made the horrors of the time period.
The Underground Railroad follows Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved young woman in 1800s Georgia grappling with the deep-rooted anger she holds against her mother Mabel, who successfully escaped the Randall plantation years before and left her behind. When a fellow slave named Caesar Garner (Aaron Pierre) tries to coax her into escaping with him, she refuses, stating that the plantation is where she belongs. But after Randall Plantation escapee Big Anthony (Elijah Everett) is recaptured and violently killed as a spectacle for the plantation owner and his guests, Cora finally agrees to run away. What follows, however, is a gruesome, but accurate look at the American slave trade as it happened in the 19th century, carried out in part by slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his assistant Homer (Chase W. Dillon) hunting Cora down.
The Underground Railroad is unflinching in its portrayal of slavery-era violence, as seen from the get-go in the first 35 minutes of the series. We watch as Cora and a younger boy are whipped across their backs by the plantation’s slave master. Closeup shots show Big Anthony’s flesh bloodily ripped open by whips and his body being set ablaze. And even after Cora’s escape in the first episode, she is continuously exposed and subjected to abuse at the hands of white men and women across the Southern U.S., all of whom are either overtly racist or prejudiced under the guise of being well-meaning. Cora’s journey never fails to remind us that slavery, as a whole, is inherently violent.
The violence woven into the practice of slavery goes far beyond the abuse felt by those enslaved. Through the actions of both white abolitionists and slave catchers, The Underground Railroad showcases just how in-depth slavery's effect is on every facet of life — from parent-child relationships, to religious identity, to marriage, to friendships — by being an ugly practice for everyone involved. Even the pro-slavery Southerners who seemingly benefit from the presence of slaves are setting the stage for the long-term prejudice that has rippled through time and still affects society and the Black community today.
Cora’s story serves as both a timeless history lesson and a reminder of where the United States’ values have always lay: demonising and terrorising anyone who white men and women consider the other. The Underground Railroad drives home that truth in Cora’s journey, making it a fact viewers never fail to forget as they meet her friends and her foes along the way. She escapes the Randall plantation and is thrown into a world where she must continue looking over her shoulder for the next threat, painfully proving that there is little hope to be had for her reaching any semblance of true freedom.
All 10 episodes of The Underground Railroad are now streaming on Amazon Prime.