The railroad of “Underground railroad” never existed, but hides a historical reality

Thuso Mbedu is Cora, heroine of
Amazon Prime Video Thuso Mbedu is Cora, heroine of Barry Jenkins’ “Underground Railroad”.

Amazon Prime Video

SERIES – It almost went unnoticed in France, yet it was rewarded this Sunday, January 9 at the ceremony, shunned, of the Golden Globes. Series Underground Railroadavailable on AmazonPrimeobtained this night the Golden Globe for Best Miniseries.

“There are harsh images in this production, images that speak plainly of the injustices inflicted on my ancestors during the great construction of this country.” These farsighted words are those of Barry Jenkins about his series. Adapted from the eponymous bestseller by Colson Whiteheadthe story follows the dark epic of a young woman named Cora Randall, played here by South African actress Thuso Mbedu, who is pursued by a slave hunter after fleeing from the Georgia plantation where she had been a prisoner since birth.

The violent and chilling story of the book, to which the director of Moonlight remained faithful, offers a documented reading of the history of slavery in the United States, but departs from reality thanks to the centerpiece of the work: an underground Underground Railroad. None of the secret tunnels Cora uses to furrow in secret, the drivers she meets or the locomotives she rides in has really existed.

Check out the trailer for “Underground railroad” below:

The allegory

Said railway is an allegory. It is actually “a network of people who acted to help slaves to hide, to escape, by loading someone into a car, for example, to drive them a few kilometers further north, or to help cross a river”, explains the African-American author, winner of the Pulitzer in 2015 for his novel, at franceinfo.

This network of roads and meeting points, which would have allowed 30,000 people to escape from the plantations between 1820 and 1860, nourishes American culture, as the television series can testify Underground by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski or the famous novel by Toni Morrison Beloved.

The fantastic turn it takes in Underground Railroad is different. “I grew up in New York, says Colson Whitehead. When I first heard of the ‘Underground Railroad’ I thought it was a real underground.” Later, his teachers explain to him that this is not the case. He is disappointed, but decides at the turn of the 2000s “to transform this metaphor into something real”. A way for him “to have several alternative worlds, which were so many visions and cross-sectional reflections: races, eugenics, medical experiments”, he concedes in the columns of The Express.

As a child, Barry Jenkins had the same vision. “I have seen black people building, working and thriving on self-made vessels, deep underground,” he said in a note to reporters. “At that moment, anything seemed possible to me. Despite the lackluster conditions of my life at the time and what looked like a vacuum, the whole world opened up to me.”

The underside of the railway

The symbolism of Colson Whitehead’s book marked him a lot. “When I read it for the first time, he continues during a press conference, I found this same emotion. There, too, the trains were not flying in the sky. It’s just that black people built them underground. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool’.”

He continues: “This series is a return to that feeling, with the eyes of an adult in place of the innocence of a child, the memory of having made soft images appear where the hard images were scratched from the folder, hidden.”

Barry Jenkins didn’t do things by halves. There was no question of using computer-generated sets, everything had to be “real”, he explains. He and his teams then got their hands on a private rail network. They then built tunnels above it. During the creative process, the director becomes aware of all that this surreal symbolism covers for him.

“I remembered the penny that my grandmother kept in a jar under her bed, he recalls during this same press conference. If these kinds of rituals, passed down to us, can inspire true belief, they have power.” The railway in Underground Railroad is for him a way of recounting the journey of his heroine, but above all of giving new meaning to the story of his ancestors. “One of the most creative experiences of my life,” concludes the filmmaker.

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The railroad of “Underground railroad” never existed, but hides a historical reality