Directed by Barry Jenkins, the visually stunning series depicts the landscape—its terrain, its sounds, its emotional significance—with rare complexity.
What does freedom sound like? For Barry Jenkins, the answer started with the Earth. While filming The Underground Railroad, the new limited series adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, the director was caught off guard by a rumbling beneath his feet. The source was a nearby construction site, but to Jenkins, the vibration felt like a train was passing under him. It reminded him of how, as a boy, he had thought the historical Underground Railroad involved actual locomotives.
Whitehead’s book, like Jenkins’s childhood mind, takes a similarly literal approach to depicting the network of secret passageways and safe houses that American abolitionists used to help enslaved Black people reach free states. The protagonist, Cora, discovers a real train system that aids her in her perilous escape from Georgia. Colossal and unpredictable, this Underground Railroad snakes beneath slaveholding states, and is carved directly into the land. By homing in on the ways the earth shapes the characters’ stories, Jenkins’s adaptation adds visual and sonic texture to Whitehead’s magical-realist vision—anchoring it in the concreteness of place and highlighting overlooked truths about enslaved people’s experiences.