If you were around in the late 1970s, the chances are that you are one of millions of people around the globe who watched the original Roots television series. If you happen to be Black and of African descent, watching Alex Haley’s mini-series was an unofficial rite of passage.
I recall the first time I watched it on a VHS tape my family had borrowed. I must have been about eight. After seeing the cruelty that enslaved people endured once captured and trafficked from the African continent to the Americas, I couldn’t sleep for months. If you were a new arrival in the Black diaspora, kids – and sometimes adults – gave you the nickname Kunta Kinte, Haley’s alleged enslaved Gambian ancestor. The show became a cultural sensation, with 85 per cent of American televisions tuned to the blockbuster, and it was later referenced by social icons from Kendrick Lamar to Dave Chappelle. It also popularised the genre of slave films.
In the years that followed, cinematic explorations of slavery were attempted by filmmakers from Steven Spielberg to Quentin Tarantino and, perhaps most notably, Black British filmmaker Steve McQueen, whose 12 Years a Slave was widely praised for how it humanised enslaved people.
However, most big-budget films about slavery have been largely written, produced and directed by white men. McQueen’s film stood out in how he chose to see enslaved people – while not ignoring the cruelty of slavery, it provided nuance, depicting Black people not merely as victims but as people who resisted their oppression. The new Amazon series from Barry Jenkins, director of the Academy Award-winning Moonlight, emerges from this background.
The Underground Railroad is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Colson Whitehead. Set in the 19th century, the series chronicles a young slave, Cora – in a career-defining turn by South African newcomer Thuso Mbedu – as she makes a desperate bid for freedom after escaping from a plantation in Georgia. The literal railroad shown in the series replaces the real-life metaphorical one, which was a network of people, secret routes and safe houses that facilitated the escape of enslaved people. In one of the best performances of his career, Joel Edgerton plays slave-catcher Arnold Ridgeway, who – along with his sidekick Homer, a Black child played by 11-year-old Chase Dillon – is on a mission to find and capture Cora.
The series is created, produced and directed by Jenkins. A descendant of enslaved people, he decentres the white gaze while not shying away from the horrors of slavery. Working with long-time collaborators such as cinematographer James Laxton, composer Nicholas Britell and editor Joi McMillon, he creates a wrenching limited series that pushes the boundaries of the moving image, offering a visually complex and engaging work.
Portraying Black trauma on screen isn’t an easy feat, and Jenkins handles this masterfully by bearing witness – a necessary act of historical remembering. The Underground Railroad lands in the middle of the debate about so-called “trauma porn”. When Black people globally continue to be subjected to racial violence, there is a responsibility that comes with re-creating images that feel all too real for Black folk.
Though harrowing and brutal, the violence never feels gratuitous. In the first episode is a scene where a runaway slave is captured and returned to the Randall plantation. He is tied to a wooden beam in the middle of a perfectly manicured lawn where white people are eating while being entertained by the hanging man being lashed. When one of the guests questions the barbarity, plantation owner Terrance Randall justifies it by saying that Black people are subhuman. The enslaved workers are forced to watch in terror as the man they knew and loved is burned alive, while Black musicians play violins.
It’s not merely a gut-wrenching depiction – Jenkins is also critiquing the act of putting violence towards Black people on display, which retraumatises Black audiences for the entertainment of white audiences. Here the audience is asked to reckon with both historical injustices and contemporary manifestations of racism.
In another scene, Cora is working at a museum where white people come to see Black people “pretending” to be slaves. One of the white workers is showing a new white employee how to use the whip. Every lash reminds Cora of the horrors she is running from. This scene reveals the mental scars left by violence far better than reproducing the wounds on a Black body.
Jenkins gives us the big screen on the small screen. The slow, poetic movement of the camera, which has become his signature, focuses on the details. The beauty of the landscapes, with the camera making the most of the natural light, serves as a reminder that horrific things take place in beautiful settings.
Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton have also perfected the art of capturing Black skin on camera. Until the 1990s, film was optimised for white skins – the chemicals coating the film couldn’t adequately capture the diversity of darker skin tones. Laxton’s camera picks up every single detail on a Black face.
The Underground Railroad features moments with little to no dialogue, and the audio design hauntingly fills the silence with ambient sound from the locations where these horrors took place. The series includes elements of magic realism that, in the context of imagining Black futures, are explored well.
The music selection is also a constant reminder that these histories are very much in the present. One episode features Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, while another ends with a chopped and screwed version – a technique of slowing down hip-hop music – of Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees” with the lyrics “Everybody gon’ respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever” playing as the credits start to roll.
Jenkins reminds us that these weren’t just bodies that experienced trauma: they were people who survived it – and who also experienced joy. One of my favourite scenes is when Caesar and Cora flee to South Carolina and after a dance, and dressed in their Sunday best, they momentarily allow themselves to daydream about what life could be like if they stopped running and what they’d name their future children. They’re playful and young and – even if only briefly – happy.
This series is one of the most significant depictions of enslavement on film and should be seen by everyone. Australian audiences might be surprised to learn that our relationship to the economic system of slavery that redefined the world and created the racial hierarchies that still trap us today extended this far. The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade contributed to Australia’s economic growth. This series is a reminder that slavery’s history is the history of us all.
The Underground Railroad isn’t without flaws – where Roots attempted to show the global nature of the transatlantic slave trade, Jenkins’ series remains centred on the American experience, despite its legacy still being felt by Black people outside the United States. The African origins of the characters are alluded to – in one episode, Cora reveals the okra seeds she’s been carrying on her journey, the only thing she could take with her. These seeds are symbolic of, and native to, Africa and were transported to the Americas by enslaved people. It’s worth noting too that this isn’t a series that is to be binged – some episodes run longer than an hour and are painful to get through without a pause.
What Jenkins has accomplished is nothing short of brilliant. On the eve of the series’ release, Jenkins shared an almost hour-long video titled The Gaze, which features a series of moving portraits of the actors in the series and is scored by the series composer, Britell.
Jenkins writes that in his filmmaking career he’s always, inevitably, asked about the white gaze, but never about the Black gaze. The portraits – his attempt to respond to that question – are what he calls “the gaze distilled”: “Moments where … standing in the spaces our ancestors stood, we had the feeling of seeing them, truly seeing them and thus, we sought to capture and share that seeing with you.”
I found myself incredibly moved watching these people staring back at me. The ancestors who dared to imagine a different reality for their descendants. And as Jenkins puts it, that while this is an act of seeing them, it’s also a way of “maybe, in a soft-headed way, ... opening a portal where THEY may see US, the benefactors of their efforts, of the lives they LIVED”.
The Underground Railroad is showing now on Amazon Prime.
CULTURE Dark Mofo
Venues throughout Hobart, June 16-22
VISUAL ART Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until September 19
BALLET The Sleeping Beauty
Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, until June 19
CULTURE Lake Macquarie Dobell Festival
Venues throughout Lake Macquarie, New South Wales, until June 30
VISUAL ART Fremantle Arts Centre Print Award
Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia, until July 18
CINEMA Iranian Film Festival
Dendy Newtown, Sydney, until June 16
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 12, 2021 as "Breaking the white gaze".
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