Entertainment

Amazon's 'The Underground Railroad' Adaptation Is an Intense, Unforgettable Series

Barry Jenkins' interpretation of Colson Whitehead's prize-winning novel is a cinematic journey best taken slowly.

Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video

Powering one’s way through Amazon Prime‘s new limited series The Underground Railroad is difficult, and analyzing one’s understanding and stance on it is even harder. With works of art like this-Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly immediately comes to mind-there’s always a rush to deem them either masterworks or missteps, but the ambitious nature of such projects can lead to premature and misguided criticism. That being said, Amazon Prime’s The Underground Railroad is one of the most enthralling cinematic experiences out right now.

Created and directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), The Underground Railroad is a slavery drama based on Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel of the same name. The series primarily focuses on a young enslaved woman named Cora (Thuso Mbedu) whose mother infamously fled their plantation and abandoned her at a young age, and throughout the course of Railroad, viewers follow her throughout her never-ending search for freedom and safety.Along Cora’s journey, she is accompanied by her fellow escapee Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and relentlessly pursued by the notorious slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and his young Black sidekick Homer (Chase Dillon). After fleeing her lifelong plantation in Georgia-where she was ostracized by many of its enslaved inhabitants-Cora’s trek takes her to South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and beyond.

Railroad is able to transport her state-to-state over subsequent episodes because, contrary to the real-world understanding of the Underground Railroad, Amazon applies a thick layer of fantasy to its historical limited series and turns the Underground Railroad into a literal underground railroad.

The air of fantasy that wafts throughout the show is what makes it even possible to make it through The Underground Railroad‘s trying and bleak tale. Jenkins’ magical-and frustratingly unreliable-railroad whisks Cora from place to place, and it’s easy to get invested in her story and hope that she’ll be able to evade the slave catcher who’s determined to bring her back to Georgia.

The Underground Railroad, as previously mentioned, isn’t that easy, though. Each stop in Cora’s constant search for an escape from America’s evils follows the same trajectory: temporary peace, the arrival of Ridgeway, and a whole lot of unhappy endings. It’s almost like a fucked-up version of A Series Of Unfortunate Events, but there’s no quirky, off-beat humor to distract you from the cycle of pain.

Still, blending fantasy with authentic representations of the Black American experience is what makes Jenkin’s series intriguing. Episode 2, in particular, features some of the show’s most peculiar moments. While taking shelter in a seemingly mixed-race utopian town in South Carolina, Cora works at a local museum that recreates the horrors of slavery with live actors. Those scenes at the museum almost feel like The Underground Railroad‘s slight criticism of itself as well as other shows and films that bring viewers back to the days of slavery.

Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video
Amazon Prime Video

“Trauma porn” is a term used to critique that often pops up when discussing such works, and one could argue that The Underground Railroad should come with that stamp. The series opener is an abhorrent one-hour episode that features plenty of heartache and three brutal whippings, one of which had The Walking Dead-level gore and resulted in a slave being burned alive. Regardless of one’s excitement for Amazon’s new series, no Black person should have to watch that first episode, and furthermore, no one else should have to watch it to understand the context in which a slave would want to escape slavery.

However, after a truly disgusting first episode, the show explores Black pain, fear, and resilience in a much more poetic and far less traumatizing way, similar to how Black Horror is creatively depicted in shows and movies such as Atlanta and Get Out. Its vibrant visuals, enchanting orchestral soundtrack, and its stunning use of non-narrative footage all combine to make Railroad arguably one of the most artistic takes on the slave genre, but the innumerable artsy indulgences also add another layer as to why the show is so difficult to consume.

In addition to stomaching the series’ unceasing emotional turmoil, Railroad is bloated. At a total of 10 episodes, while one particularly enjoyable episode has an unconventional 20-minute runtime, nearly every other episode lasts for one hour or longer. With far too much fat to justify, Railroad often drags nonessential scenes on for far too long.

The previously mentioned non-narrative shots-while admittedly gorgeous and thought-provoking-depict moments that feature slaves standing still and staring straight into the camera, but even they are also overused. Especially considering that Ridgeway received a full 40-minute episode that highlighted his entry into slave catching, the time spent on non-narrative moments could have been better used by fleshing out the stories of amazing characters like Mabel (Sheila Atim), Royal (William Jackson Harper), and Caesar.

As a standalone work of art, Barry Jenkins’ reimagining of The Underground Railroad is ambitious, visually stunning, and thought-provoking. Although unable to relieve itself from the emotional heaviness that’s intrinsically attached to Black slave-era stories, Railroad moves past a jarring opening episode to take viewers on a Cora’s arduous, yet inspiring journey. So while neither its endless cycle of suffering nor its overindulgent creative decisions make for a truly great series, Amazon’s The Underground Railroad is definitely an unforgettable one.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Joshua Robinson is an Atlanta-based contributor to Thrillist.

Entertainment

Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.

Victoria

Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.

Queensland

BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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