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  • Jeff Beck

The Underground Railroad: A Compelling Saga of Perseverance (Criterion Blu-ray)


The Show:


Filmmaker Barry Jenkins officially kicked off his career about 20 years ago, delivering mostly short films that were moderately received. However, in 2016 he gave us the film that would truly cement his status, "Moonlight," a work that would not only earn him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and a nod for Best Director, but also garnered the Oscar for Best Picture. His very next feature, "If Beale Street Could Talk," earned him yet another nomination for Adapted Screenplay, but soon after, he decided to turn his attention to television.


He had dabbled in it a little before, but with "The Underground Railroad" (based on the novel by Colson Whitehead), he fully took the reigns as showrunner & director, while also writing/co-writing several episodes, resulting in a miniseries that received critical acclaim and several award nominations. This week, in something of a rarity for the prestigious collection, Criterion is bringing the series to Blu-ray for the first time, so as usual, let's dive right in and see how it amassed its multitude of accolades.


The story primarily focuses on Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), a slave on a plantation in Georgia. After her master (Benjamin Walker) brutally burns another slave alive, she finally decides to take up an offer from her fellow captive, Caesar Garner (Aaron Pierre), and attempt an escape to freedom. During their escape, Cora is forced to defend herself, leading to the death of one of her pursuers, making her wanted for being both a runaway & a murderer. As they make their way north, they are relentlessly pursued by Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a slave catcher that boasts of a nearly perfect record (with the one ironic exception being Cora's mother, who vanished several years earlier). With Ridgeway hot on their trail, Cora & Caesar desperately continue their flight to freedom, with the hope of putting their dark days of captivity behind them for good.


"The Underground Railroad" is a miniseries that may be epic in length, but is surprisingly intimate in its scope. Focusing primarily on one central character as she makes a desperate bid to escape the horrors of slavery, traveling from state to state and making new acquaintances along the way, makes it rather easy to get engaged in her eventful quest. Throughout these ten episodes, just like Cora, we never know when Ridgeway is going to be lurking right around the corner, or what the result of their various encounters will be, giving the series a palpable sense of tension as she makes her journey.


That said, there are times when it feels as though it strays a bit too much from the main story, or in some cases, stalls with a lack of development. This is a minor spoiler, but one such time is an episode where Cora is held prisoner by Ridgeway for an entire episode as they travel through Tennessee. It's a rather uneventful episode that features little in the way of progression in the narrative, feeling more like padding than anything else. Another example is the series' shortest episode, which merely shows us the fate of one of the characters Cora meets along the way. It's great to see what happened to them, but it's a plot point that would've worked much better as a brief addition to the episode they are featured in.


However, even with that being the case, the miniseries works quite well when it is on point, delivering a rather compelling tale that has you rooting for Cora every step of the way. It's no surprise that is ended up receiving seven Emmy nominations (including Outstanding Limited Series and Direction), as well as nods from the Producers Guild, Writers Guild, and Directors Guild (which Jenkins won). It's an epic tale of beating the odds, overcoming immense obstacles, and never giving up, ultimately making this a riveting saga that is easily worth the ten-hour investment.


Video/Audio:


"The Underground Railroad" comes to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1/2.39:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. The new 4K remaster, approved by Jenkins himself, presents a beautifully sharp image throughout all ten episodes. Likewise, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is fantastic, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and music in outstanding quality. Overall, in typical Criterion fashion, there's not a single complaint to be had in either department.


Special Features:


Commentary by Barry Jenkins, cinematographer James Laxton, and lead editor Joi McMillon

The Gaze (58 minutes)

Building "The Underground Railroad" (4 Minutes)

Deleted Scenes (13 Scenes)


The Blu-ray comes with a somewhat limited set of special features, but at least there is a hefty portion of deleted scenes, as well as commentary from Jenkins (and sometimes others) on every episode, which is a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about the making of the show.


Conclusion:


Barry Jenkins' "The Underground Railroad" is a compelling tale of a desperate flight to freedom, brought to life by a tremendous cast and exquisite production/costume designs. The narrative may stray every now and again, but it doesn't stop this ten-hour epic from being a riveting experience that's easily worth the extensive time investment.


Score: 3.5/5


Available on Criterion Blu-ray starting tomorrow.


Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.


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