Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins, Jihan Crouter, Jacqueline Hoyt, Nathan Parker, Alison Davis, Adrien Rush
Starring: Help Mbedu, Aaron Pierre, William Jackson Harper, Joel Edgerton, Chase Dillon
Cinematography: James Laxton
Editors: Joi McMillon, Alex O’Flinn, Daniel Morfesis
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
The main characters in Barry Jenkins’ films may hide secret dreams, but when they close their eyes, only nightmares come. IN Moonlight (2016),, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is startled by the long-forgotten memory of his drug-addicted mother screaming at him. As Tish (Kiki Line) walks away If Bill Street could talk (2018), the gates of the train station turn into prison bars, imprisoning her fiancé, who is falsely accused of rape. The subway (2021), Jenkins’ first foray into television was a thematic sequel to his past work. In order for white men to understand the American dream, their slaves must experience an endless nightmare.
A brilliant adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the 10-episode Amazon Prime Video series follows Cora Randall (Tasso Mbedu), a slave girl born and raised on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Cora’s sunken eyes and stooped shoulders signify not just the weight of her work, but the burden of past betrayal – when she was a mother, her mother escaped the plantation alone, leaving her to this fate. At the urging of fellow slave Caesar (confident, sharp-eyed Aaron Pierre), the two flee together to the legendary subway, a secret network of trains and conductors beneath the surface. A fantastic aspect of Whitehead’s story, it lends weight to the show through the urgency of its seekers and the fierce loyalty of the sworn to keep its secrets. An element of historical fantasy, it becomes a way of illustrating the harsh realities of the nation.
Jenkins allows his visual language to speak, inviting viewers to discover the metaphors dotted with its lush frames. From the very first scene, Cora’s escape is inevitable. The stunningly edited original montage depicts her mother giving birth as the train rushes in, the headlights shining, through the mouth of an underground tunnel, with a darkened curve like that of the womb. Both the train and Cora will continue.
While other slave stories focus on the dehumanization of their characters, the show is a collection of moments that make them human. The slow magnification shows how lonely a person can be while standing in a crowd. There is room for small joys, such as the whispered flirtation between friends, the soothing touch of a child’s hand, and the secret thrill of a book hidden for hidden reading. When Cora escapes in an attempt to escape slavery, she follows in her mother’s footsteps, but she still cannot overcome the sting of her betrayal.
Read also: Crash Course on the Underground Railroad, New Show of Barry Jenkins On Amazon Prime Video
Throughout the series, the camera is reflective, not operational. He shakes like his heroes, rises when they triumph, and falls low when he is defeated. His gaze, as he captures the horrors experienced by the slaves — flogging, forced breeding, dehumanization, is unshakable, but he does not treat their pain as the canvas on which to compose art. It is filmed in a way that is raw and terrifying, not stylized or manipulative. Cruelty hides under the curl of a fake smile as easily as in the crack of a whip. But while pain is an indisputable part of Blacks’ lives, it is not the totality of their lives. Jenkins does this by interrupting the end of each episode with a song, from Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” to Donald Glover’s “This Is America,” a highlighted celebration of black voices in a show depicting how they were once silenced.
Cinematography reveals as much as it obscures. In the plantation, sunlight penetrates the upper half of the frame, a view of a world beyond that, an invitation to seek it. Sometimes it burns so brightly, completely erasing the faces of the characters, like Icarus’s omen warns them not to deviate too close. When Cora reached the subway station, she stayed on the rails, letting the glow of the approaching train headlights flood her as long as she could, and that yellow heat was finally felt. “If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say you have to drive the rails,” says Cora’s conductor. “Look outside as you pass quickly, and you’ll find the true face of America.” It’s a cruel joke – there’s only darkness outside. This is not the face of America, but it is a black heart.
The scale of America’s atrocities unraveled as Cora traveled from country to country seeking refuge. In North Carolina, her bright yellow dress stands out against a muted background, suggesting that even a more liberal state may not allow her to fit in perfectly. On the most desolate road, she travels through the scorched lands of Tennessee, ravaged by wildfires, a grim illustration of the hell she finds herself in. Kora is often on the move, with each stop revealing her accumulated luggage along the way. Regrets bind her like iron shackles.
Deviations from the source material only enrich the show, deepening the connections between the characters and making their choice more touching from behind. The 600-minute performance and episodic format gives Jenkins a place to break away from the main plot and develop other rich narrative areas. The shortest episode, only 19 minutes long, exists only to serve as the side character code, which was introduced a few episodes ago and does not exist in the book. The fact that he feels welcome and does not distract is proof of Jenkins’ ability to tell stories. Cora is given a small amount of closure, which she is denied in the book. And while the actions of slave hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) never apologize, a complex rainbow highlights how his motivation also stems from bitter betrayal.
However, this is not a series that is meant to be watched by overeating. This is a show made with care and patience, requiring attention and patience to watch. Each episode leaves a mark. For 10 hours, Jenkins and his team of writers achieved amazing technical and emotional achievements. Cora’s journey is one of pain and sacrifice. This is also a triumph.