On the occasion of the Amazon Studios release of Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad, a ten-episode adaption of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel, FQ board member and frequent contributor Michael Gillespie convened a roundtable with scholars whose work is deeply attentive to the art of blackness, especially regarding literature, television, and cinema. Walton M. Muyumba, Samantha N. Sheppard, and Kristen J. Warner each offers a distinct assessment of the series as critical provocation and aesthetic practice while also posing necessary and difficult questions about conceptions of history, culture, visuality, narrative form, temporality, and—not least—the media industries. Together, these scholars share their thoughts on the complications and import of the series as part of what is sure to be an ongoing consideration of its meanings and methods.
As an occasion to deliberate together, this piece represents a gathering that is dedicated to Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad. This collectivity centers on the consequential enterprise of the ten-episode series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel. It was important to compose this roundtable with scholars whose work was deeply attentive to the art of blackness, especially regarding literature, television, and cinema. Each offers a distinct assessment of the series as critical provocation and aesthetic practice while also posing necessary and difficult questions about conceptions of history, culture, visuality, narrative form, temporality, and—not least—the media industries. Together, these scholars share their thoughts on the complications and import of the series as part of what is sure to be an ongoing consideration of its meanings and methods.
The last few years have seen the release of a great number of black programs that revise and challenge the classical model of television programming regarding blackness, television seriality, the miniseries, the special focus, pop historiography, radical breaks, and complacent concessions. What does The Underground Railroad mean to you in the context of this proliferation of new work with distinct formal designs and cultural politics?1
I think so many of these recent long-form black television programs offer an interesting formal proposition that, of course, harks back to the groundbreaking significance of Roots. With a lot of the shows mentioned, and this series in particular, I have paid much more attention to the idea of the series arc as a narrative/counternarrative where constructions and conceptions of blackness shift over the course of its episodes. Also, black temporality and aesthetics shape The Underground Railroad and other recent television programs in really compelling ways. This move against and through chronology—in terms of narrative, visuality, and aurality—conceptualizes blackness as temporally serialized and episodic, disjointed and connected, both a part and a whole.
I was really struck by the links between The Underground Railroad and Misha Green’s work with Joe Polaski on Lovecraft Country [HBO, 2020] and Underground [WGN America/OWN, 2017–], especially in the anachronistic use of popular music. Green embeds this anachronism into her series and Jenkins uses it to bookmark the end of chapters. Both create sonic bridges between the specificity of a lived past and present and speculative black futures where these images and sounds swirl together, in and out of harmony.
To me, the proliferation demonstrates the abundant aesthetic possibilities inside a globally minded sense of the black experience. Black narratives and other narratives about black life exist in “Great Time”—that African experiential space without beginning or ending. Telling stories about inhabiting that space demands an experimental or improvisational practice. Audiences of the series you mentioned might find that watching demands a practice of intentional viewing.
This doesn’t mean I watch everything. But it might mean that if I do watch and enjoy The Underground Railroad or any of the other recent black shows, I ought to put those shows in conversation with each other in order to measure their relative weaknesses and strengths. I can arrange that discourse among the showrunners, performers, characters, story lines, musical references, directors, et al. into many different formations without exhausting the intersections. For instance, in the Misha Green multiverse, how are Rosalee from Underground and Leti from Lovecraft Country being enhanced and influenced through Jurnee Smollett’s performances as each character?
UR occurs in Great Time. This idea is announced in the way the show’s opening shot sequence edits together images from what will be the series’ closing episode: Cora’s and Ridgeway’s [Thuso Mbedo and Joel Edgerton] slow-motion fall into the moribund Indiana station, shots of Mabel [Sheila Atim] giving birth to Cora, and clips from subsequent episodes. Some of these images are rolling in reverse as the opening sequence features characters especially crucial to Cora’s fugitivity.
All of it is happening at once: narrative time as palimpsest rather than linear expanse. When the series ends, it’s just another stage of Cora’s running. She doesn’t have an actual direction, just out of the South and away from every previous place. Freedom isn’t a destination or an object to capture, nor is it even constrained by the limits of this series. When Cora and Molly [Kylee D. Allen] come to the railroad’s end and catch a ride on Ollie’s wagon heading west, I imagined them landing in the Oklahoma Territory, ancestors of Watchmen’s Will Reeves and Angela Abar.
With the business of Hollywood in mind, these attempts at culturally specific black texts are risky experiments that can only really be done by the surest auteurs working with a cable or streaming platform. It is no secret that, for specialty content that is risky, the more prestige and pedigree in above-the-line talent a studio can obtain, the better. This move often appears to provide a safety net to rely on if other aspects of the project don’t work. I suspect that, within the mindset of film and television professionals, there are probably no more than four or five Black auteurs within the vast subset of this category of filmmakers who merit studios taking on the risk of an extremely large budget with potentially low dividends.
In these terms, it makes absolute sense that Jenkins would have the ability to make the project he desired for Amazon. The Underground Railroad, like many of the other recent programs, is difficult and dense in its narrative structure and formal style. There’s an expectation that a series like this will be more than the slave narratives that have been rejected or deeply critiqued, like Harriet [Kasi Lemmons, 2019], Antebellum [Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, 2020], the Roots remake [History Channel, 2016], or The Birth of a Nation [Nate Parker, 2016]. Specialty content, in order to exist, must have enough insurance in the sense of showrunner experience and cultural cachet to justify the risk that this show may be work that no one (except for the correct demographics for critical acclaim, come awards time) watches.
Pausing to recognize that auteur talent—like Jenkins, Terence Nance, Steve McQueen, and Ava DuVernay as well as consistent love brands such as Jay-Z and Lebron James—has become the collateral necessary to green-light a project (and not merely added value) and would certainly help critics and savvy viewers alike to avoid commending these streamers for their “edginess” and to recognize, instead, the formula that determines how culturally nuanced television shows make it to air.
Barry Jenkins has demonstrated an intriguing range of adaptation strategies, from his use of the unproduced script of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue as the basis for Moonlight to his visualization of James Baldwin’s book If Beale Street Could Talk to, now, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. In the case of UR, the series is quite ambitious, yet it is structurally tethered to the novel’s narrative arc in many intriguing ways. As a series, it thrives through its shadowing and expansion of the source work. Avoiding the tired road of fidelity criticism, what struck you about the adaptation?
For me, one of the most consequential changes that Jenkins made was the invention of the character of Grace/Fanny Briggs [Mychal-Bella Bowman], who shares the attic space with Cora in Ethel and Martin’s home in the North Carolina sequence of the series. Jenkins essentially adds an entire chapter to detail her escape to the Underground Railroad. To no small degree, I was relieved, possibly even grateful, that he added that chapter. Not only did it revise my thoughts about Grace’s fate, but it also made me rethink my affective register toward Cora’s tragic narrative. Let me explain what I mean. Throughout the series—up to the moment where we think Grace is killed in the fire—it feels like Cora’s fate is bound to the threat of capture (she really cannot shake Ridgeway), and those who get close to her (Lovey and Caesar) are ill-fated. Of course, this is not Cora’s fault, but it does underscore her own self-description that she is “nobody’s good luck.” With Grace’s addition to the narrative and her escape, there was a revision of how hopeful I felt for Cora and for those who helped her along on her journey to freedom.
If it’s possible to imagine, the series is darker than Colson Whitehead’s novel. Not only do the filtered shots of the world outside the Randall plantation seem forever overcast (especially so in the burned-out, pox-ridden, apocalyptic Tennessee in episodes 5 and 6); the screenwriters have removed much of the novel’s weirdness and the author’s taste for menace riven with humor. While the series follows Whitehead’s arc, Jenkins designed his own narrative, albeit an unironic and unfunny one. And in that amendment, something special about African American storytelling has been obscured. There are moments of lightness or low-key ironic humor sprinkled throughout the episodes, like the wonderful moment during the bar scene in episode 6 when Cora, with hooded eyelids and a shady, subtle neck swivel, reads her captor: “So Arnold Ridgeway is human after all. And here I thought you was just some demon who murders folk in cold blood.” My sense is that Jenkins modulated toward the darkest tones because that adjustment makes it easier for the actors to perform the characters’ psychological motivations and for the filmmaker to describe a visible trajectory toward freedom.
I appreciate Gillespie’s allowance for us to move beyond the questions of fidelity. I am interested in contemporary stories that occupy similar space to UR—in particular, The Good Lord Bird [Showtime, 2020], an adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 novel. While the projects take place during the same period of enslavement and both work to centralize complex and flawed Black leads, they are clearly about different things. But where I think they are in conversation with each other televisually through their narratives lies in the tones and their approach to magical realism.
In UR it is the literal train of interlinked safe houses made manifest that enables the audience to understand the movements of the characters as an actual journey that summons the literary device. In TGLB it is the satirical tone that complicates but comically and gently ribs the great abolitionists we (rightly) lionize. There is just something about watching an absurdist, non-self-actualized Frederick Douglass explain to Henry Shackleford and John Brown why radical uprisings would effectively wreck his brand that generates a levity that feels a bit fantastical. So in that spirit, setting these two series side by side, I would say that Jenkins’s project does do what Muyumba suggests: he transposes it into something darker to counterbalance the potential wonder of the beautifully lit golden train sequences. Jenkins holds this story very tightly and its tone even more so.
Representations of slavery in film and media have been a significant point of contention in recent years. There is the “trigger” refrain that latent trauma binds an epigenetic and spectatorial sense of violation. How appropriate is it to view film and/or media as a reinscription of or equivalence to the experience of slavery itself? Can slavery be measured in terms of being an ethics of harm with an implied logic (too hot, too cold, and just right)? The trauma critique might also relate to an unvoiced critique of the range of generic modes and narrative possibilities. Formally speaking, what did you find noteworthy about UR’s enactment of slavery? Does it distinguish itself from other recent renderings of slavery in film and media? There is a deliberately sustained quotidian nature to the brutality in UR that, coupled with its sublime worldmaking, is precisely a part of why it is so affectively unnerving.
I agree that slavery’s rendering in popular culture has a limited range of generic possibilities that have been welcomed by audiences in general and black audiences in particular. I bristle at the refrain that “we do not need another slavery movie” and at the actors/actresses who insist they do not want to do “trauma porn.” What bothers me is that people have flattened blackness so severely that they cannot imagine black laughter on a plantation. And that we cannot imagine how to tell stories about slavery that account for the inhumanity of the experience and the humanity of the people.2
I think Jenkins’s series is one of the better cross-generic media depictions of slavery. One of The Underground Railroad’s strengths is that the work is deeply melodramatic. In that sense, there are openings for subgeneric impulses—comedy, thriller, suspense, romance—as it explores the devastating spectacularity of slavery. But what to make of a melodrama that plays with its viewers’ sense of victim and villain? I’m not sure what we do or what we’re supposed to do with the character of Homer [Chase Dillon], for instance. Children do figure interestingly in the series: young Cora, Molly, Grace/Fanny Briggs, young Mack, but Homer’s character is beguiling in so many ways because he is both sympathetic and abhorrent. His motivations feel enigmatic and enthralling even as we can (or cannot) fathom his self-hatred.
There were so many times I thought Homer was going to be a double agent and help Cora. But by the end of the series, I realized this is the kind of sentimentality that Lauren Berlant is critiquing in melodrama and its affects.3 Black children in the series are meant to evoke particular feelings: hope, virtuousness, innocence. Homer embodies those feelings—with that cute, cherubic, dark-skinned face—but he distorts them as well. Yes, he is a victim of slavery and Ridgeway’s grooming, but he is also villainous and agentive in his antiblackness that challenges sentimental and paternal affects. He reveals Cora’s presence in Mr. Martin’s house. He kills Mack [IronE Singleton] before Mack can kill Ridgeway. And when Ridgeway is finally killed by Cora, he is only seen mourning Ridgeway, but I believe that he grows up to terrorize Black people.
Homer, with his loyalty, swagger, intelligence, notebook, and Pavlovian bedtime routine, embodies that complexity and weirdness of children. Interestingly, as the episodes progress, Cora and Grace/Fanny Briggs control their narratives by acting as their own scriveners when documenting their histories for the railroad passenger logs. Though he can write, Homer is never seen memorializing his experience. Maybe that happens in the narrative’s afterlife.
There are generic limitations, indeed. But I don’t think that cinematic or televisual melodrama is capacious enough to represent the range of emotional complexity, psychological degradation, savagery, weirdness, absurdity, and depravity that was the history of slavery. And yet, I’m not sure that Jenkins’s UR or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) can be surpassed artistically in how they present the fullest pictures possible of slavery in the United States.
And yet, even as I recognize the power and macabre beauty of both, I don’t need to watch them again—except for a scholarly discussion like this one. They have marked me indelibly. Watching UR has become part of what I call my negative education: the intelligence or insight gained from watching or reading about dehumanizing circumstances. Though it’s beautifully and thoughtfully made television, I can’t claim that I found it pleasurable viewing. Because the series represents nineteenth-century slavery and fugitivity truthfully, precisely, rigorously, imaginatively, UR belongs categorically and necessarily to the art of cruelty (Maggie Nelson’s version, not Artaud’s).4
I think that quality is what people who react negatively to projects like these are actually expressing. Their disappointment arises inevitably from the relentless honesty of such works. Filmmakers and showrunners sometimes produce slave narratives without offering new escape routes. They repeat stories that are, in fact, still ongoing.
I want to push back on what you’re saying here, Muyumba. Those last two sentences are not fully true, I think. In fact, Gillespie’s question and your point here make me think about genre revision, because while it is absolutely true that there is a limited range of generic possibilities regarding films about slavery, it seems that any update on the theme is ipso facto a sign of its oversaturation for certain Black audiences.
The examples here are certainly ones that reinforce the fatigue felt around these stories, but I might even include the “Black Acting School” sketch in Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987) as an illustration of satire related to the exhaustion that lies behind the tropes inherent in slave films of that era. Perhaps the tropes that occupied many of these narratives for so long have fostered an outright rejection of the genre on sight, and as a consequence any updates or reimagining of these stories are difficult to produce.
The fantastical nature of UR’s storytelling and the care and caution given to how it depicts the brutality against the enslaved exemplifies the negotiation around and through these painful conventions and tropes. However, if it is condemned by the discourse that holds that all slave movie traumas are careless and thus are unproductive for the viewer, then revisions cannot ever be allowed to take place.
To the point about the place of melodrama: it is precisely the reading of slave narrative as melodramatic trope that so easily enables those who imagine themselves to be “savvy” viewers to dismiss whatever productive work the retooled reimagined genre could generate. And, to be clear, I respect the choice of those who are frustrated with slave film and media, and wish for it to fade away. My perspective, though, is informed by my ambivalence as a media studies–trained scholar who believes in filmmakers who can update, retool, and reimagine these stories, infusing them with different perspectives and activating senses long numbed by played-out tropes. The journey of the lead character in UR is an alternate perspective within this cycle that is wholly necessary to see in much the same way that McQueen’s unflinching realism and visuals in 12 Years a Slave revises the often saccharine tone of the genre.
Lastly, I think that the filmmakers who understand the fatigue and acknowledge it even as they implore their public to press on and bear witness are the gift of this cycle’s growth. Raoul Peck, in voice-over, saying he knows that what we are witnessing in Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO, 2021) is hard but to “stay with him” as he walks us through it is a kindness we can receive only if we allow for the evolution of the genre.
With the extraordinary nature of Cora’s journey/escape in mind, what struck you about how the series enacts fugitivity, the idea of freedom, and the legacy of thought and art devoted to being free?
I think this work is a reminder that freedom dreams are also nightmares. Let me explain. We have all seen those popular shirts: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” And while I get the sentiment, I think this work that Jenkins imagined and adapted points to the folly of such a proclamation.
At the end of the series, as Cora heads out west and Ridgeway is dead, the viewer may feel hopeful. But the history of America is not just about the North versus the South. Cora’s pivot westward is unnerving as well. But she is moving onward, and I think that is how freedom dreams are rendered throughout the series—as routes, some leading to better places than others. And of course this becomes underscored in the magnificent set design of the Underground Railroad system and its various pathways to new places and possibilities. The railroads offer not only routes to safety but also safe spaces filled with blackness as an illuminating force.
Subways and elevators are recurring vehicles in Whitehead’s fiction. He began using them to ask Ellisonian questions about subterranean intellectual spaces and heavenward routes into personhood. Now he uses those vessels to ask questions about reiterated structures of dominance, immobility, and escape. As his novels end, Whitehead’s characters are often alone and racing away from a shitstorm into some uncertain future.
At the end of this series, though, the rail line dead-ends. Cora and Molly continue their escape. But, as in his major studio productions, Jenkins closes this story with an image of familial safety even in the face of an uncertain future. Jenkins is a revisionist: he reconfigures the literary narratives he works with in order to articulate the cinematic dream of certain safety. The shot of Cora and Molly (who is a series addition that is not in the book) huddled underneath the blanket in Ollie’s wagon suggests that whatever freedom is, it can’t be achieved alone. Maybe in this framing, Jenkins is suggesting that for Black folks, maintaining family bonds will become part of a practice of freedom.
To reclaim a common phrase, I’d begin with “Freedom isn’t free.” In this I’m thinking less about the actual series and more about the machinations and negotiations for the series to even exist as it is and with the air of prestige and distinction that it possesses. What are the invisible costs that give Jenkins the freedom to artistically produce a ten-hour experience of this magnitude for a global streaming platform? And with a cast that, outside of Joel Edgerton, does not contain any immediately recognizable names? If the budget is largely geared toward the production values and toward the purchase of Whitehead’s intellectual property, then what line items have been reduced to make room for the novel and director as the stars? While UR is not necessarily a realistic model for what is to come for the future of art-house/commercial black cinema, the artistic freedom that the series embodies is one that allows for aspirational possibility.
The portraiture conceit employed throughout the series demonstrates yet again the signature style of Jenkins’s ongoing collaboration with James Laxton. What are your thoughts about the measure of blackness as a formal, cultural, and critical proposition in the series? There is a rich compounding of worldmaking and blackmaking that textures the mise-en-scène and narrative arc throughout. What are your thoughts about the series as concurrently a historiographic and aesthetic project?
The question reminds me of a point in Kevin Quashie’s Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being: “We are supposed to not-see-ourselves or to see ourselves through not-seeing; we are, indeed supposed to fear—and hate—our black selves.”5 Every time the portraiture framing is used, I think Jenkins is deeply engaged in framing black aliveness with “aesthetics as a form-of-life, aesthetics as schema for considering the aliveness.”6 Those scenes stand out because they not only invite a reconsideration of representation—and the lure and limits of visibility—but also offer a visual poetics of black aliveness.
And to extend this point: I often heard my breath in those sensuous moments and thought about, in Quashie’s terms, the animating capacities of Black bodies on-screen as not only recognition but also connection. Those scenes were just exquisite. There was pause, individuality, and plurality. There was a gorgeous texture to those shots that had the capacity to ensure that the people (main and supporting characters, and extras) in the scene were not marginal props or property of the mise-en-scène but central to the narrative world.
Throughout the series, Jenkins, Laxton, and Meagan Lewis, the casting director, make sure that viewers see the broadest range of blackness possible—from Sheila Atim’s deep-purple, Ugandan black coffee to Aaron Pierre’s green-eyed, tea-and-milk British blackness to Amber Gray’s American ambiguity. That spread also has a stacked effect: Black on Black on Black. I’m reminded of Zadie Smith’s writings on Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits of Black people. Smith notices that Yiadom-Boakye’s close attention to formal problems allows her to stylize a blackness as color and experience, thickening it by placing “layers upon layers upon layers” of paint on her canvases.7
One fine instance of this kind of layering or thickening occurs in episode 6 when Laxton frames Cora before the wall mural in the handsomely appointed underground station in Tennessee. Jenkins and Laxton also achieve this during Cora’s dream sequences when her vision becomes the camera’s, gazing upon and panning across the Black faces on Randall Plantation (in episode 6), and in the large, bustling underground depot (episode 8). These beats present, instead of paint, “layers upon layers upon layers” of variously hued brown-skinned actors. These sequences of thick blackness dramatize Cora’s unconscious at work. Dreaming restlessly, her eyes focus the camera’s direction. Her complex feelings of resentment and guilt tussle with her desire for safety and love.
As Teju Cole describes in his essay about Roy DeCarava’s still photography and Bradford Young’s cinematography, Laxton and Jenkins simultaneously render the “physical facts” of blackness metaphorically and literally during these passages. They present blackness as “opaque, dark, shadowed, obscure” while simultaneously capturing “the hard-won, worth-keeping reticence of black life itself.”8 The director’s portraits of Cora and the ones framed through her eyes are the best expression of a visual grammar fashioned to represent Black existential experience as at once invisible and visible.9
Some of the work that this group had in mind to reference for this conversation included Self Made: Inspired by the Life Madam C. J. Walker (Netflix, 2020), Time: Kalief Browder (Spike and BET, 2017), Random Acts of Flyness (HBO, 2018), Watchmen (HBO, 2018), When They See Us (Netflix, 2018), Lovecraft Country (HBO, 2020), I May Destroy You (HBO, 2020), Small Axe (Amazon, 2020), Them (Amazon, 2020), Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO, 2021), and The Good Lord Bird (Showtime, 2020).
See Glenda R. Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)
See Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
See Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011)
Kevin Quashie, Black Aliveness, or A Poetics of Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 5.
Zadie Smith, “A Bird of Few Words: Narrative Mysteries in the Paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye” in Feel Free: Essays (New York: Penguin Publishing, 2018), 200.
Teju Cole, “A True Picture of Black Skin” in Known and Strange Things: Essays (New York: Random House, 2016), 150–51.
Alexander Weheliye’s fascinating reading of Hortense Spillers’s crucial contributions to discourses in feminist criticism, critical theory, and black studies might be useful here. Through Cora, UR presents “modern subjectivity from the vantage point of black women, which develops a grammar, creates a vocabulary that does not choose between addressing the specific location of black women, a broader theoretical register about what it means to be human during and in the aftermath of the transatlantic slave trade, and the imagination of liberation in the future anterior tense of the NOW.” Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 39.