• Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad is one of the great cinematic events of the young 2020s decade.
  • It is Jenkins’ fourth film, and since his breakthrough with Moonlight in 2016, he is one of cinema’s great auteurs during this past six year stretch
  • The Underground Railroad is the largely the story of Cora (played by Thuso Mbedu) and her harrowing exodus from slavery, state by state (with a few asides, the chapters are broken out by state). The entire running time is a whopping 9 hours and 53 minutes- an epic, an opus.
  • Jenkins opens foreshadowing a slow-motion falling down a cave. There is a dizzying montage of crisply photographed images, the story of the okra Cora carries, setting up the grand struggle about to commence.
  • Chapter one is set in Georgia.
  • There is a disturbing, sustained wide-angle shot of flagellation.
  • Jenkins uses magic hour photography here even more than Chloe Zhao does in Nomadlands (though the percentage of it is probably comparable as Jenkins’ work is roughly five times as long).  It is certainly a purposeful choice, a visual motif, and the overpowering orange hue surfaces at least five times in the opening chapter. There is a sequence with Joel Edgerton (playing the heinous slave-hunter Ridgeway) at the 31-minute mark of chapter one. The hue is even used in the interior setting.
  • Perhaps he doesn’t use it quite as much as Moonlight or If Beale Street Could Talk, but the close-up shot is still a very important of Jenkins’ repertoire and few in the history of film (PTA is an admirer of Jenkins’ skill here) can craft a close up shot as beautiful as he can.
  • For the first time, to my memory, in his career, Jenkins uses shallow and soft focus photography throughout. In one early shot in chapter one Cora’s face is clear, but the body blurry.
  • The golden lighting is used again at the end of the tunnel in the titular railroad. Outkast’s “Bombs over Bagdad” lands as the large-FONT end title credits drop. Jenkins would close every chapter this way with a different, potent, pop song.

Jenkins’ usual cinematographer (James Laxton) is back, as well as the composer Nicholas Britell. Jenkins’ also chose the brilliant Mark Friedberg (Far From Heaven, The Darjeeling Limited, Joker) to do the production design. This is a major achievement for all three. The massive acting ensemble also holds their own—though I’d say this is a major feather in the cap for only Mdedu.

  • Chapter two is in South Carolina. You may think that every step north the racism gets a little more subtle, but each presents its own challenge for Cora. There’s some strong lighting work here at the social ball and walking into the emporium.
  • At the 38-minute mark Jenkins goes to a match edit from the faces of Edgerton to Mbedu.
  • Chapter three is set in North Carolina. Cora here is mostly trapped in a small room and some of the cinematic momentum suffers for it. It is natural to happen in a work that is 10 hours long—but this is the weakest hour of Jenkins’ career going back to his debut in 2008 Medicine for Melancholy. There are some golden rings at the book burning and sun pouring in on Cora as the chapter ends.
  • Chapter four is a break from Cora’s story. Instead, it tells the tale of Edgerton’s character (Ridgeway) with the great Peter Mullan playing the father. I want Peter Mullan in every movie- and this is sublime casting here as a blacksmith.  Watching Ridgeway turn into a monster (or maybe he always was one) is bloodcurdling. Chapter four has a stunner of a shot in the woods and it is really a strong, little fable-like short story (it is only 40 minutes) interlude about a bad seed.
  • Chapter five is set in a burned-out Tennessee. It looks like a hell toasted over—or like the second half of Letter Never Sent (1960) from Kalatozov. At the 36-minute mark the sun is coming out on the horizon with dust blowing on the Homer character.
  • Chapter six is not good—another stretch of uncharacteristic stylistic quietness from Jenkins
  • Chapter seven is the 20-minute, largely silent, story of Fanny Briggs as another short interlude.
  • Chapter eight is the story of Indiana and those autumnal colors certainly recalls Jenkins’ Beale Street. There are fleeting moments of an Eden achieved here – a respite for Cora but ultimately it a mirage.

At the 39-minute mark of chapter eight there’s the splash of sun, and then the shot of Cora holding the gun. There is a great frame of the  light coming from behind her at the 46-minute mark

  • From the 62-64 minute mark, in Royal’s cabin (William Jackson Harper), there’s a nice long take oner—the camera walks in the cabin with Cora, surveys the empty space (finding him gone- and her devasted) and then as she exits Jenkins frames her with the door—genius.
  • Episode nine is the Indiana winter. Jenkins is really working at this sort of operatic realism. He’s documenting the harsh realities (this is hell on earth) for Cora—but he’s not afraid to indulge his talents, the rich production detail, the costume work, the color and lighting motifs.
  • At the 16-minute mark of chapter nine the actors look at the camera again. This has been done throughout the film (once, powerfully by the slaves at the plantation) – this shot is called (by Jenkins) “the gaze”. Jenkins then uses slow-motion to pair with the Clair de Lune from Debussy. In this short, masterful sequence, both William Jackson Harper and Thuso Mbedu face the camera in these enchanting close-ups. These are a sumptuous few minutes of cinema. Jenkins then cuts to the sun coming up on the horizon.

Jenkins has called this move “the gaze”- the pain in their eyes, not just from Cora and her story, but the entire broader story.

gorgeous cinematic paintings…

…both of the collective and the individual

  • There’s a bit of von Trier’s Dogville here.
  • Dueling sermons proceeding a massacre, at the 63-miinute mark— the fall down to the railroad which was foreshadowed in the opening. At the 70-71 minute mark the gallery of “the gaze”.
  • Jenkins goes back and racks the focus from soft to a deep focus.
  • Chapter ten is the story of Cora’s mother Mabel. There’s the sun pouring in over the screen in the top right. There are women posing at the chapter ten title frame.
  • Jenkins again hazes out to soft focus.
  • Jenkins ends with okra, Cora, the visual motif of the sun and some sort of optimism (which is crazy given what she endured by still earned, and not a cop-out). Above I mention Nomadland- but I think James Gray’s Ad Astra is another film with a dominant visual motif that pervades so much of that film. In that brilliant film it was Gray’s constant sun-spot designing of the frame. Here it is that orange hue, sometimes completely washing out the characters. It is a stroke of genius- and it may ultimately make this Jenkins’ strongest work. The few chapters that are weaker are the only things giving me pause for the moment.
  • A Must-See film after one viewing.