Criterion Review: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (2021)

Barry Jenkins’ miniseries remains a boundary-pushing masterwork in a surprising physical media release

Packaging artwork courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

In the second chapter of Barry Jenkins’ epic miniseries, The Underground Railroad, white spectators tour a living museum that claims to truthfully depict the journey of slaves from “uncivilized” Africa to the hardships of plantation life. A tour guide delivers comforting yet racially charged falsehoods to the crowd while actors pantomime their dubious roles. One woman, wearing a tribal mask that hides her identity, finishes her shift and reveals her true self—Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave whose quest for freedom has culminated in daily re-enactments of the horrors she tried to escape. Despite removing her costume, Cora’s invisible mask remains: as a runaway under constant pursuit by slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), her identity must continuously shift for survival.

These museum sequences are striking in their alternation between humor and horror. By showing how eagerly the patrons consume narratives that confirm rather than challenge their beliefs, Jenkins and his team seem to skew traditional slave narratives and their function for audiences eager to seek them out. As critic Anjelica Jade Bastién notes in her accompanying essay for The Underground Railroad’s Criterion release, “Slavery films rarely give Black folks space to honestly reflect on America’s second original sin or how its legacy ripples into the present. Instead, these movies tend to soothe the guilt of masochistic white liberals and grant them a feeling of edification, allowing them to avoid reckoning with the racism inside themselves.” However, what sets The Underground Railroad apart is that Jenkins’ insightful reflection on America’s slavery past doesn’t end at this satiric distance. Rather, these tropes and imagery are used as initial entry points to deeply explore the history and emotional consequences of slavery, as well as the lives of his characters beyond more than just the trauma inflicted upon them. Yes, The Underground Railroad is its own slave narrative, depicting the same horrific imagery necessary to accurately portray these atrocities. Yet, like in his past films Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins doesn’t reduce his Black characters to a singular, unreadable mask or canvas of trauma that we can pour a collective grief or suffering into–or, as Bastién puts it, “a canvas on which the horrors of this barbaric system are projected.” Instead, Jenkins explores the rich interior lives beneath the superficial and morbid fascination, delving into the complex, confrontational emotions each character wrestles with in a world of systemic cruelty.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead, the miniseries follows Cora as she follows her best friend Caesar (Aaron Pierre) in escaping the horrors of their Georgia plantation in search of freedom in the North. While the introduction is familiar in traditional Slave narratives, Whitehead and Jenkins radically break from this by introducing a literal underground railroad–a refined, gorgeous operation completely anachronistic to the antebellum terrorism raging aboveground. Across the series, Jenkins explores a wide range of beliefs and emotions tied to racism and hate, resonating beyond this period of American cruelty. Through the development of central slavecatcher Ridgeway, we see how hate can take root even in families driven by progressive ideals. In a Georgia town secretly sterilizing former slaves, Jenkins shows how progressivism can warp to mask deeply racist underpinnings. A village that turns racism into a God-mandated spectacle reveals the insidious nature of social conformity, where hate requires an endless supply of others to thrive. One of the most fascinating arcs involves a freed, financially independent Black town, examining the unattainable standards of “excellence” imposed on Black identity as much from within as from external pressures of White society. While these themes echo throughout the series as a whole, Jenkins never guides his audience to a place of gentle resolution. Instead, Jenkins instills an urgent immediacy and agency upon his viewers, encouraging present reflection and action.

Alongside such penetrative meditations, Jenkins crucially carves out time for show-stopping moments of beauty and passion. Cora wrestles with her trauma through deepening relationships with others, such as fellow escapee Caesar and freeman Railroad worker Royal (William Jackson Harper). There’s an elegance as well to the Railroad itself, with its labyrinths of brass and marble amidst harsh outcroppings of untamed rock, that stands in defiant opposition to the barbarity on the surface above which only pantomimes as “civilization.” Where characters are able to remove themselves from the trappings of White society, there’s space for earnest beauty and joy–whether it’s in a shucking bee filled with pranks and courtships, or in the pageantry of a formal ball in a more “progressive” part of town. Even in the most evil sections of the world, Jenkins and Cora root out kernels of hope–in the form of subversive acts of human kindness. This focus on an ever-existent duality between horror and beauty is born from how Cora’s journey in The Underground Railroad isn’t just one of escaping plantation life, but of escaping the imagery and roles thrust upon her in that environment. While Ridgeway’s relentless pursuit of Cora and her vanished mother (Sheila Atim) instills paranoia and mistrust in Cora, showing how her experiences inform her unpredictable present, so does Cora’s relentless drive to evolve beyond the limitations of her imposed identity. While her scars may remain, Cora remains in constant conversation with her trauma without allowing herself and others to limit her to it. As such, The Underground Railroad evolves our ideas of what stories about American slavery can be capable of because it captures and dramatizes so many other aspects of America’s unending conversations about race, hate, and our human capacities for both compassion and evil.

Bastién has noted elsewhere that Jenkins’ camera “is never a neutral observer. It is curious, empathetic, and deliberate;” that empathetic curiosity reaches new heights in The Underground Railroad. It finds beauty in moments both deserved and not, championing empathy as much as providing a chilling contrast to where it’s expected to be wholly absent. It finds a patient empathy with all, from the downtrodden to the horrifying–yet Jenkins never lets us confuse this patience for comfort. I love Barry Jenkins’ work because of how this signature empathy extends across all aspects of both form and content; he’s someone whose care for the images he crafts shines through each linked frame. Every setting and character has a history, the end result of so many triumphs and prejudices. There’s as much as a link between past and present as between one image and the next. The past’s relevance doesn’t decrease as its distance grows, but is instead something thrumming with life and its messy contradictions. As much as we look at the events of his films as removed spectators, themselves already separated by the passage of time in production and post, Barry Jenkins seizes every moment to close this gap by having his characters lock their gaze upon us. The empathetic bond forged in those linked gazes has as much consequence as any event in the past.

In this sense, The Underground Railroad ambitiously aims to be more than a living museum. It earnestly embraces anachronism alongside accuracy, fantasy with reality, to foster a vibrant and visceral connection with our present. Rather than leave audiences with the opportunity for a bright future born from the ashes of a horrific, distant past–Jenkins acknowledges and urges audiences to take up the work that is still left to be done, and to reckon with our ancestors’ actions in an active, current way.

It’s remarkably fitting that this Criterion release of The Underground Railroad also serves to evolve conversations about media and its consumption. While one may have expected either of Barry Jenkins’ other masterful films to have followed his debut Medicine for Melancholy in their Criterion canonization, it feels nothing more than monumental that we’ve instead received a sumptuous packaging of his 2021 miniseries. While predominantly curating a selection of what we’d strictly consider to be “cinema,” Criterion has released packages containing episodic and other form-pushing pieces of media–including the series Fishing with John, any of Ingmar Bergman’s television cuts of his films, the experimental shorts of Stan Brakhage, and, yeah, the greatest hits of the Beastie Boys. In more current years, the Cinapse team has charted Criterion’s crucial collaborations with streamers like Netflix and Railroad’s own Amazon, including Cold War, The Irishman, and many more–with these releases acting as a radical act of preservation in a present whose attention spans and economy seem predicated on consuming and forgetting as quickly as possible. By adding The Underground Railroad to the collection in such an extensively labored-upon package, this collaboration recognizes not just how Barry Jenkins’ miniseries effectively evolves our ideas of how modern audiences should confront Slavery, but also how The Underground Railroad’s daring sense of experimentation renders it just as worthy of cinematic canonization as its more formally traditional counterparts.

VIDEO/AUDIO

Criterion presents The Underground Railroad in a 1080p HD transfer in the original aspect ratios of 1.78:1 and 2.39:1, cited as being sourced from Amazon Studios’ original 4K masters. The transfer is accompanied by the original Dolby Atmos audio track and a 2.0-Channel stereo downmix, as well as SDH subtitles and a descriptive audio track for every episode. 

As with their five previous Amazon collaborations, The Underground Railroad thrives in its physical media presentation now that it’s freed from the individualized limitations of streaming bandwidth. Regular Jenkins collaborator James Laxton’s cinematography is resplendently realized here, with a vibrant color palette in sequences both beautiful and terrifying. There’s a premium placed on the natural world and earthy tones, rich with wood grain, crumbling dirt, towering dark caves, and rainbow prisms through glass. It allows for a stark visual contrast to civilization, with constructed, sterilized buildings providing a visual externalization of the disturbing, unnatural societal structures that inhabit them. While the transfer is stunning in most respects, mileage does vary depending on your player’s methodology in upscaling Blu-ray Discs to UHD exhibition. While it’s disappointing that this originally 4K transfer isn’t receiving the UHD treatment, the care in creating this presentation is evident across all 585 minutes.

The presentation’s most rewarding aspect is the preservation of the Dolby Atmos mix to the series. Much like the visual approach, Jenkins prizes the thrums and echoes of the natural world and the busy noise of existence, constantly making The Underground Railroad’s 1800s setting feel so current and alive. Atop it all, though, is Nicholas Britell’s score–which passionately compliments the beauty and pain of The Underground Railroad with compositions that alternate between piercingly meditative bombastically orchestral.

SPECIAL FEATURES

The Package

  • Audio Commentaries by co-writer and director Barry Jenkins are provided across all ten episodes of The Underground Railroad, recorded in 2023 by Criterion exclusively for this release. Cinematographer James Laxton (Chapters 5, 6, 8, 9) and lead editor Joi McMillion (Chapters 5, 6, 9) occasionally join Jenkins to provide their insights and anecdotes. Given his position as co-writer, director, and showrunner, Jenkins’ commentary provides vast amounts of information across all aspects of production, including the emotional and historical origins that drew Jenkins to the project, translating Colson Whitehead’s occasionally ambiguous prose into the show’s rich visuals, navigating the shifting logistics of capturing the wide scope of production on an ever-increasing budget shortfall, and the experimental editing process.
  • Genesis: A wonderfully-realized graphic novel written by Nathan C. Parker and Barry Jenkins, illustrated by Valentine De Landro, and adapted and colored by Eric Skillman. Adapted from an episode of The Underground Railroad that was cut for logistical and budgetary reasons, this lost chapter illustrates just how the railroad came into creation, a piece of lore hinted at in a mural in one of the episodes. Jenkins’ care for his material translates well to this vastly different medium, capturing the same urgency and empathy central to how the rest of the show functions.
  • Booklet featuring an essay by Vulture film and TV critic Anjelica Jade Bastién. Here, Bastién highlights how the series portrays Cora as a fully developed character despite the dehumanization of American slavery, allowing her and others to transcend mere symbols of trauma that modern viewers use to distance themselves from the evils of the past. She also discusses how Jenkins and his creative team bring biting nuance to common slavery narratives and motifs, from the corrosive degrees of White violence and inaction to the equally complicated depictions of Black characters, through which Jenkins examines different responses to systemic prejudice and subjugation.

Disc One – Chapters 1-2

  • The Commentary Hub: Jenkins provides an introduction to the set’s overall commentary experience, noting that he recorded his tracks in production order rather than chronologically. To guide viewers through the logical flow of his insights, he suggests the following order: 2 – South Carolina, 1 – Georgia, 10 – Mabel, 8 – Indiana Autumn, 9 – Indiana Winter, 3 – North Carolina, 7 – Fanny Briggs, 5 – Tennessee – Exodus, 6 – Tennessee – Proverbs, concluding with 4 – The Great Spirit.
  • Deleted Scenes spanning the length of the miniseries, with four from Chapter 1, two from Chapter 2, two from Chapter 3, one from Chapter 5, one from Chapter 8, two from Chapter 9, and one from Chapter 10.
  • Teasers: Similar to Jenkin’s camera tests which would eventually comprise the experimental film The Gaze (see Disc Four), these Britell-scored snapshot teasers provide a tonal glimpse of the series, often featuring footage in reverse to provide an intriguing, temporal-defying grasp of the series to come. Accompanied by a nearly three-minute introduction by Jenkins.

Disc Four – Chapters 9-10 

  • The Gaze: Originally born of camera tests of actors’ costumes on location, Jenkins’ evocative moving tableaux became one of The Underground Railroad’s most important recurring visual motifs. As post-production continued, Jenkins and editor Daniel Morfesis were inspired to create a silent compilation of these tests set to composer Nicholas Britell’s lush score. The resulting 52-minute art piece serves as a piercing microcosm of the series, breaking down the barrier between past and present, viewer and subject. Through Jenkins’ compassionate lens, a simple gaze fosters empathy that defies centuries. Accompanied by a 6-minute introduction by Barry Jenkins delving into the film’s origins.
  • Building the Underground Railroad: A four-minute promotional featurette featuring interviews with crew about the project’s origins and production, prepared by Amazon ahead of its 2021 streaming debut.

The Underground Railroad is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post MAXXXINE is a Seedy Slasher with a Star Turn from Mia Goth
Next post MURDER COMPANY Deals out a half DIRTY DOZEN