The Underground Railroad is a 2021 Amazon original series released today.
0 out of 10 stars. This is a fictional piece that has nothing to do with Harriet Tubman or the real underground railroad used by slaves to escape the south before and during the Civil War. It is unnecessarily graphic and deeply disturbing. It’s really a horror series.
Coral Randall and Caesar Garner are slaves on the Randall plantation run by two brothers. The younger, kinder brother dies and the older, crueler brother takes over. He institutes a breeding program where the best young men are forced to have sex with all the slave women in order to produce the best stock for Randall to sell. Randall is present at every mating, which is sickening. Caesar is chosen as one of these “breeders” and it is deeply disturbing to his psyche. Then an escaped slave named Little Anthony is caught by an evil slave catcher named Arnold Ridgeway and his sidekick, a little slave boy he owns named Homer. Randall whips Little Anthony almost to death then burns him alive, forcing all the slaves to watch. That evening, Cora and Caesar leave.
Another slave, Lovey, follows them and she is dumb. She refuses to stop humming, which is like a homing beacon to anyone searching for them. So eventually five men jump them. Two take Lovey while Caesar and Cora fight off the other three and escape. In the fight, Cora hits one of the men, a young teenager, in the head with a rock and he dies. Ridgeway puts out flyers that Caesar and Cora murdered an innocent white child. Not exactly the truth, but Ridgeway is evil.
In this fictional world, slaves use an actual railroad built underground to help slaves escape North, which is completely implausible. Conductors appear out of nowhere and a massive train takes them through a rock face. It’s like one long dream sequence. The catch is that the slaves must give their testimony to the conductor before they can go to the next station. It is literally like they are being forced to give a piece of their soul to ride.
Griffin, South Carolina
Their first stop is Griffin, South Carolina, a town that appears to be paradise. They’re given nice clothes, homes, food, and jobs. They’re treated with respect. Or so it would seem. The longer they stay the more they realize that appearances are wrong. The women are being forcibly sterilized and their children killed. The men are being tested with various drugs and poisons to see how quickly they die. It’s a living lab where the lab rats are the slaves.
When they try to get back on the railroad, they are told the next station is closed and they must wait. But Ridgeway catches up with them and finds Caesar. Cora escapes to the railroad and catches a ride with a maintenance car headed north.
There’s a reason the North Carolina station is closed. Religious zealots have taken over the town and hung all the slaves and anyone who helps them. They line the road for miles. The conductor is about to blow up the station when Cora appears. Reluctantly, he takes her home and hides her in the attic where the last escaped slave is still hiding from months earlier. She’s a child named Grace.
After months of confinement in the dark, Cora develops scurvy from lack of sunshine and vitamin C. The conductor and his wife take her down into their home to heal her. That’s when Ridgeway and Homer arrive. Cora surrenders herself to save Grace, not taking into account that she’s giving the conductor and his wife immediate death sentences. One of the zealots sets the conductor’s house on fire. Grace narrowly escapes, but the fire spreads through the village until all of it is burning. There’s a message in there.
Ridgeway takes Cora and another escaped slave, Jasper, to Tennessee to his home. Along the way he tells them in graphic detail how their friends died. Caesar was ripped limb from limb and his eyes removed while he was still alive. He also physically tortures them which eventually leads to Jasper’s death. Then there’s just Cora.
Ridgeway’s father has passed and he’s going to pay his respects. His father was actually a kind man who refused to keep slaves and hired freedmen until he was broke. That filled his son Arnold with rage and is why he became a slave catcher. While Ridgeway is sleeping in his father’s house, conductors for the railroad come and free Cora. They’re about to kill him, when Mack, his father’s black godson, says he’ll do it. But Homer kills Mack before he can do it so Ridgeway and Homer are still chasing her.
Royal is one of the conductors who saved Cora from Ridgeway. He’s in love with her. He takes her to a black settlement in Indiana named Valentine. There they grow the best grapes in the countryside and make the best wine in the countryside from those grapes. They freely supply this wine to the local judges so that no slave catchers will be given warrants to search for slaves without them being notified first. Then they can get the slave to safety. But their leader, Mingo, has gotten very vocal and very cocky with the local businessmen. They see Ridgeway’s arrival as an opportunity to steal the farm from the slaves. While Cora, Royal, Mingo, and the others are holding a town meeting to decide whether Cora can stay (because Ridgeway claims she murdered a white child), armed white men attack and murder everyone. Ridgeway grabs Cora right after Royal is killed then he demands she take him to the railroad. So she does.
Here’s where Cora finally gets the courage to try to stop Ridgeway. She knocks him off the ladder and he falls about 60 feet. He’s not dead yet, but she can’t kill him. She leaves him there with Homer to go see if anyone is left. The only other survivor from Valentine is a little girl. So Cora takes her to the tunnel, kills Ridgeway, and they take a maintenance car West.
The last episode is about Cora’s mother Mabel. Growing up, Cora was told that her mother escaped and left her behind. That’s not true. Mabel was the plantation midwife and healer. Her best friend Polly has repeatedly had stillborn babies and has yet another stillborn child, a boy, with her mate Moses. Coincidentally, another slave dies in childbirth with twin boys. Moses convinces Randall to let Polly nurse the boys back to health so they can be sold. Nothing Mabel says can dissuade them. Polly dies (bleeds to death) and Moses is whipped. It’s unclear what happened to the twins (sloppy writing), but they appear to have died too. In reality, when a woman nurses, this leads to the release of hormones that retract the uterus and stop bleeding. Nursing twins, she never would have bled to death. But since a man wrote this and didn’t fact-check, that’s the plot.
Tasked with cleaning the bloody cabin where Polly died, Mabel is overcome with grief and walks into the swamp where she is bit by a poisonous snake and dies. Cora never knows what happened to her.
In the last 20 minutes Cora and the girl rise from the tunnel to the railroad and find wilderness. Then a man named Ollie comes along in a wagon and offers them a ride. He’s headed west through Missouri and he’s black. They go with him and maybe make a family.
0 out of 10 stars. This series suffers from many issues. Let’s start with sloppy writing. The story line is inconsistent and poorly told. It’s like one long dream sequence because the writer didn’t want to flesh out the details. Or perhaps didn’t know how to. Nothing is based in reality. The railroad stations could not possibly exist where they put them. My next complaint is that this is completely fictional. The writer/director deliberately misleads the viewer into thinking these were real places and real events. They weren’t. Nowhere does the director state to the viewer that this is purely fictional. And since they intentionally named the series after a real life historical trail, the Underground Railroad, that is unforgivable. My next complaint is the unnecessarily graphic torture and murder scenes. In naming the series for a trail that is religiously studied by schoolchildren, Amazon is encouraging them to watch this and be traumatized by it. Not to mention making them believe in a false version of history where slaves didn’t free themselves by following the North Star, but by waiting for an imaginary train to pick them up.
The only thing they did right with this series was casting a Ugandan actress to play Mabel. It was nice seeing an actual African playing an African.