The Underground Railroad is a love story.
Yet while this does include the survival-driven courtship between enslaved heroine Cora and Caesar (the tall and handsome man who asks her to run away to freedom with him), their love is secondary. Instead, the biggest love story is that of Cora loving herself. And this is the journey that Oscar winner Barry Jenkins’ limited series takes viewers on, beginning with the first of 10 episodes that premiered this Friday on Amazon Prime.
Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, The Underground Railroad imaginatively and elaborately spins a world where actual and various subterranean trains allow enslaved Black people to escape to the North and liberate themselves. They just have to get there first.
This is of course no easy feat for Cora, who is so weighed down by the sorrow of her mother running away without her that she initially tells Caesar no when he proposes an escape plan. But life on the Georgia plantation where they are forced to live and work worsens when a maternally instinctive Cora attempts to shield a young boy named Chester from one of Master Terrance Randall’s wrathful beatings. (Chester had accidentally bumped Terrance’s arm, causing the wine in the white master’s glass to stain his sleeve.)
Enraged, Terrance started to hit Chester with his cane until Cora intervened — and then he beat her, too. And both were whipped for their perceived insolence the following day. But still, Cora didn’t want to run. This changed when slavecatchers foiled Big Anthony’s escape attempt and captured him. Upon his return, Terrance punished Big Anthony by burning him alive as a form of entertainment for him and his dinner guests… and as a warning for the watchful enslaved. Prior to the inhumane torture of Big Anthony, Terrance physically “inspected” Cora, letting her know that he likely would eventually rape her because she was his property.
That’s when Cora’s love for herself eclipsed all else. She didn’t pack much. Cora grabbed a hatchet, a bag of food and dug up the okra seeds her mother and grandmother left her, and she and Caesar took off running. Midway through the escape, Cora’s best friend Lovey caught up with them and said she was running away with them, whether they liked it or not. And then there were three.
But Lovey kept humming and making noise, and a gang of white hog catchers attacked. Cora hit the young boy who grabbed her and Caesar bested the man who grabbed him, but Lovey wasn’t so fortunate. Two of the men grabbed Lovey and whisked her away, and Caesar and a heartbroken Cora had to keep running without Lovey.
They gingerly waded through a green and murky swamp, past deadly snakes, and ran through an open field holding hands as they got to Mr. Fletcher’s house. (He’s the sympathetic Northern transplant who had an underground station just below his tobacco drying shed.) Before they left, Mr. Fletcher warned them that the authorities were especially eager to capture them because the white boy that Cora hit in self-defense was dying from his injuries.
As they descended the ladder to the tracks below, Mr. Fletcher asked for Caesar’s story as a payment for their escape, and Cora was so rapt by the train’s actual existence that she nearly got run over by it. But Caesar pulled her to safety, and they boarded the wooden rail wagon together.
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