“The Underground Railroad”
Rated TV-MA. Available on Amazon Prime May 14.
Barry Jenkins stunned Hollywood and made Oscar history when his masterpiece “Moonlight” won Best Picture over “La La Land” back in 2016. However, instead of using the career momentum to cash in and make blockbusters, he instead decided to adapt the James Baldwin novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Around the same time, he began to develop Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad” as a limited series for Amazon and the result, which hits the streaming service Friday, is a staggering achievement.
This is one of the most poignant and emotionally devastating television series in recent memory, destined to be in the conversation of all-timers. It’s an incredible experience, although not an easy one.
The story, which evokes “Gulliver’s Travels” (a character even name-checks it in an early episode), centers on Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), a young slave on a Georgia plantation decades before the Civil War. After escaping with her friend Caesar (Aaron Pierre), the two link up with the Underground Railroad and discover — in a brilliant conceit taken straight from Whitehead’s novel — that it’s not a metaphor: it’s a literal secret railroad, complete with locomotives, conductors and a network of tunnels, tracks and stations.
Over the course of her long journey, Cora is pursued by Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a relentless slave catcher who is obsessed with tracking her down and bringing her back to Georgia. Adding to his madness is the fact that Cora’s mother Mabel (Sheila Atim) is the only runaway who ever managed to elude him.
As Cora makes her way from Georgia through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana, she contends with the weight of America’s great sin, the legacy of the mother that left her behind and her own struggles to realize a life she didn’t believe was possible.
There’s no way I can properly convey the power of “The Underground Railroad” in such a brief space. The short version is that I strongly recommend watching the 10 episodes over the span of a few weeks, rather than blowing through all of it at once. The series is a lot to process, and most viewers will need time to ponder and recover from each episode.
I also suggest reading Whitehead’s brilliant novel first (although Jenkins’ adaptation is certainly accessible on its own). While the series is mostly faithful to the original text, it has more time to breathe and approach the author’s literary voice in a more cinematic way. The experience isn’t better or worse, but it’s certainly different — albeit just as essential.
“The Underground Railroad” is complex, thematically rich and captures Whitehead’s unique mixture of magical realism, dream logic and horrific reality, while also making it more accessible for mainstream audiences. Those who’ve seen “Moonlight” and “Beale Street” know Jenkins and his usual collaborators — most notably cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell — excel in crafting beautiful, affecting imagery. But the team builds on their already-remarkable skills here, weaving multiple narratives into a stunning, epic tapestry.
The director has stated in interviews that some of his tonal and visual inspirations for the series are Paul Thomas Anderson’s films “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” which is abundantly clear as the episodes play out. This approach also helps differentiate “The Underground Railroad” from similarly themed narratives like “12 Years a Slave” and “Antebellum,” which feel like trauma porn that viewers must “endure” rather than engage with.
Make no mistake, there’s no denying the series is a brutal watch — particularly the first and last episodes. But scenes of monstrous barbarism are often intertwined with beautiful, awe-inspiring vignettes illustrating Cora’s determination to hold firmly to her humanity in an unfathomably cruel world.
There’s no clearer example of this than episodes eight and nine, which take place on a farm in Indiana and could be an entire film on their own. They contain some of the most touching and gut-wrenching moments viewers will see this year, big screen or small.
In an inspired touch, Jenkins ends each episode (aside from one major exception) with anachronistic music from artists like Outkast, Childish Gambino and Mahalia Jackson that connects thematically. I thought it was an odd choice initially, but then I realized Jenkins is giving viewers a chance to transport themselves out of Cora’s era and back into their own so they can have time to process what they just experienced.
Jenkins’ vision, combined with phenomenal performances from Mbedu, Edgerton, Pierre, William Jackson Harper and Chase Dillon, make “The Underground Railroad” an ambitious, essential piece of long-form storytelling. It not only illuminates vital aspects of our nation’s past, it’s also a searing allegorical commentary on modern events.
“Wrath of Man”
Rated R for strong violence throughout, pervasive language, and some sexual references. Now playing in theaters.
Filmmaker Guy Ritchie collaborates with Jason Statham for the first time since 2005’s “Revolver” in this bleak thriller, which is a bit outside the norm for both. While neither are strangers to bloody tales about criminals, most of their movies are either action comedies or at least approach the material with a wink. Not this time.
In “Wrath of Man,” Statham plays H, a mysterious new security guard for an armored car company. His coworkers (including characters portrayed by Holt McCallany and Josh Hartnett) don’t think much of him at first, but when he single-handedly takes out an entire crew during a heist, they begin to wonder who this guy is and where he came from. As the answer is gradually revealed, his personal vendetta against a group of criminals (played by Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Eastwood and others) becomes clear.
From the dour tone to the long takes to ensuring that heroes and villains get equal screen time, Ritchie’s latest reminded me of 1995’s “Heat.” Don’t get me wrong, “Wrath of Man” isn’t on the same level of quality — but it’s clear that Michael Mann’s amazing crime epic was a huge influence.
While Statham is quite good, his character is the lynchpin that other fantastic character actors revolve around. McCallany and Donovan are fantastic, while I’m glad Eastwood seems to be figuring out he’s much better at playing weirdos and slimeballs than traditional leading men.
However, other actors are squandered, including Hartnett, Eddie Marsan and — most of all — the great Andy Garcia, who pops up for a few minutes in a nothing role. Maybe he’s just a big fan of Ritchie or Statham? That’s the only thing I can figure.
The screenplay (which has five credited writers, including Ritchie) could’ve used another polish as well, especially when it comes to dialogue. Some of the overly macho conversations are cringe-inducing, so the flick works much better when the characters are glowering and shooting each other.
Overall, though, “Wrath of Man” is worth checking out to see Ritchie and Statham step out of their comfort zones. It’s a throwback to gritty crime flicks of the 1970s, and it mostly works.