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'The Underground Railroad' review: Powerful adaptation of Pulitzer-winning novel

Thuso Mbedu (Cora Randall) in Amazon Studios' "The

Thuso Mbedu (Cora Randall) in Amazon Studios' "The Underground Railroad." Credit: Amazon Studios/Kyle Kaplan

SERIES "The Underground Railroad"

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Cora Randall (South African actress Thuso Mbedu), a young enslaved woman on an antebellum Georgia plantation, escapes with the help of Caesar Gardner (Aaron Pierre) who takes her aboard an underground train. First stop is a presumably enlightened South Carolina, while in pursuit of them is the notorious slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton, "Zero Dark Thirty '') and his assistant, Homer (Chase Dillon), a Black man whose freedom Ridgeway procured. Cora then flees to North Carolina, later settles in a Utopian community in Indiana where she meets one of its leaders, Royal (William Jackson Harper, "The Good Place").

This ten-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel was written and directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight").

MY SAY Like Whitehead's novel, Jenkins' series is a lucid dream trapped inside a nightmare. The dream is that train that keeps no schedule, has no passengers, and no apparent destination. Like Toni Morrison's Beloved, its corporeal existence is a matter of conjecture. Maybe this train is real, or unreal, literal or metaphoric, or maybe just a distinction without a difference: It's actually both.

Above ground, meanwhile, is where the nightmare unfolds. Jenkins doesn't soften the blows of the book, and adds a few of his own. This series gets right down to the optic nerve ends, leaving them raw to the point of bleeding. Once seen here, little will be left unseen. The brutalized, tortured, ravaged, burned, the human stain on history — American history — are not washed away or expunged or forgotten so easily. This then was slavery. Brace yourself.

Morrison once wrote about "the pitched battle between remembering and forgetting" and Jenkins pitches this adaptation right into the midst of that battle too. No one must ever forget or unsee, even if some creative license is brought to bear. Homer — the poet, not the character — is also engaged in the effort, when Caesar quotes Odysseus: "'Be strong, saith my heart. I am a soldier. I have seen worse sights than this.'" Not perhaps worse than here.

Whitehead and Jenkins in fact use both "The Odyssey '' and "Gulliver's Travels '' as rough analogs to Cora's journey through the heart of darkness. When she comes up to the light, she will find either utopia or genocidal hellscape, but only underground, in that Stygian gloom, is there possibility for salvation. In a dream, an actual one, Cora meets a conductor who tells her, "leave it to a group of Africans to build a place underground where you can drink the world's best coffee." So there's that too.

"The Underground Railroad '' is often difficult to watch, at times impossible to watch, but at least there's beauty, power, and some first-rate performances, as compensation. It's a threnody to lost history, or forgotten history, and to people without recorded names, birthdays or resting places, and to those who passed through life — to borrow the poet's line — through a veil of tears. It's also, screenshot by screenshot, James Baldwin's observation that "you cannot lynch me … without becoming something monstrous yourselves …"

The series wanted some real historic resonance — the murderous attack on Tulsa's so-called "Black Wall Street" exactly a hundred years ago — and got some contemporary resonance instead (George Floyd's murder). But Whitehead's message, and the series' too, is about the right here/right now. There's no way to escape history so best stare it straight in the eyes. This "Railroad" never blinks. Don't be surprised when you do.

BOTTOM LINE Long, hard ride with some strikingly beautiful craftsmanship to make it all feel worthwhile — at least some of the time.

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