Running beneath the 10 transfixing, meandering, poetic episodes of “The Underground Railroad” is a sound: the clank of a hammer on metal. By the final hour, it may seem like it’s always been there, hovering in the background like a distant blacksmith. It’s the sound of chains being forged but also being broken, the hammer of history, the tolling of a bell. It’s the summons of a train moving out of the station on the long, fraught journey of a woman, a people, and a country.
That sound and one other recurrent motif — the gazes of 19th-century Black men and women turned to the camera — pull this sprawling, ambitious enterprise together. Premiering on Amazon Prime Video, “The Underground Railroad” has been adapted from Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Barry Jenkins, the gifted director of “Moonlight” (2016) and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018). It’s Jenkins’s first major project for television, and he plays with the form in ways that don’t always work — the middle sections of this epic sag like a country bridge. But when “Railroad” comes together, it exerts a dramatic force that puts it close to the great narratives of race in America. (The book already is one.)
Whitehead wrote a work of magical-realist realism, a story of a young woman named Cora who escapes a brutal Georgia plantation by riding the title conveyance, an actual steam locomotive churning its way north, state by state, through subterranean tunnels. Each stop has its own heroes, villains, and horrors. Some are rooted in a history many white people still don’t want to listen to or teach, while others are only slightly fantastic extrapolations of same. The constants are Cora’s search for her mother, Mabel, who escaped the plantation years earlier and was never recaptured, and Ridgeway, the bounty hunter and hellhound on Cora’s trail.
Jenkins’s cinematic reimagining (with the author’s presence as executive producer) casts the South African actress Thuso Mbedu in the lead, and if her Cora seems at first more reactive than the one in the book, it’s mostly because film tends to hide the inner life that writing can convey. The character grows over the course of the narrative, and so does the performance. The first episode, “Georgia,” is the kind of nightmare to which we should never become accustomed, the Randall plantation’s “good” owner (Justice Leak) replaced in death by a brother (Benjamin Walker) who delights in such cruelties as burning a returned escapee to death for the entertainment of his garden party. Cora sees no choice but to flee along with Caesar (Aaron Pierre).
The first two stops on the railroad, the episodes titled “South Carolina” and “North Carolina,” function as self-contained short stories, like a “Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror” for the antebellum South. In the first, an improvement society for Negroes run by benevolent whites is revealed to have sinister motives beneath its civilized veneer; in the second, Cora hides in the attic of an evangelical village that has “purified” itself of all Blacks. “This is science!” exclaim the ladies of the improvement society (by which they mean eugenics); “This is God!” could be the rallying cry of the villagers; Jenkins powerfully dramatizes both sides of a deluded, diseased argument.
But then “The Underground Railroad” grounds to a halt for several episodes. Cora is recaptured by Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) and taken on a long end-run through Tennessee, an apocalyptic landscape left barren after the fires of settlers and the forced march of the Cherokee. They’re accompanied by Jasper (Calvin Leon Smith), a captured runaway with the gaunt otherworldliness of an Old Testament prophet, and by Homer (Chase W. Dillon), a nattily dressed Black child who is Ridgeway’s assistant and one of the eerier unsolved mysteries of this adaptation.
Episode 4 (“The Great Spirit”) gives us the backstory of Ridgeway and his adolescent rebellion against his father, a kindhearted Deist of a blacksmith played by the great Scottish actor Peter Mullan; Episode 6 (“Tennessee — Proverbs”) brings the prodigal bounty hunter and his captives back to the patriarch’s homestead for a reckoning. Much of this wasn’t in the novel and, more to the point, it feels extraneous to the mini-series; the pace grows slack and self-conscious and Nicholas Britell’s evocative soundtrack music can’t goose it back to life.
Edgerton is excellent, but why are we spending so much time on Ridgeway in the first place? His demons are too idiosyncratic to serve as a metaphor for the psychology of white supremacy (although Mullan’s character reminds us there was always an alternative), and, in any case, that psychology has already been portrayed with nuance and force by characters like the improvement society’s doctor (Will Beinbrink) and the conflicted religious fanatic played by Lily Rabe.
After a 20-minute chaser of an episode devoted to one of Cora’s fellow fugitives (Mychal-Bella Bowman) — a character who isn’t in the novel and who perhaps points toward a more optimistic future — “The Underground Railroad” gets back on track. Led by the gentle Royal (William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place”), Cora arrives at a utopian farm in Indiana, run entirely by Blacks under the leadership of the sermonizing idealist John Valentine (Peter De Jersey) and his wife, Gloria (Amber Gray).
Viewers familiar with the names of Rosewood, Thibodeaux, and Tulsa will be holding their breath for the inevitable, but the Indiana episodes stand as an often-thrilling fusion of ideas and storytelling, the momentum building to an electrifying debate between Valentine and a fellow farmer named Mingo (a terrific Chukwudi Iwuji). The latter believes white men can be placated and accommodated by the farm’s business success — by its very example of “Negro advancement” — and the question of which man and mind-set are naïve and which are realistic changes sides over and over before it’s too late.
The contrasting ideal of the “American imperative” is raised by whites throughout the series, as an excuse for plunder or to rationalize the violence done to Black bodies. “The Underground Railroad” is a series intoxicated by ideas and emotions, and at times it loses the forward propulsion of a tale intently told. Jenkins takes risks, some of which falter and some of which soar, and in this he’s abetted by James Laxton’s impressionistic camerawork, the detail of Mark Friedberg’s production design — I could spend a month in that resplendent station concourse of Cora’s dreams — and especially by Britell’s score, a major and multi-level achievement in its own right. (An added pleasure are the song selections of the episode end-credits, which range from Kendrick Lamar to Childish Gambino and Marvin Gaye to Mahalia Jackson.)
And there are the stares, which don’t break the fourth wall so much as bridge the divide between then and now, them and us. A character will shift his glance mid-sentence toward the camera, implicating the viewer as a witness, or Jenkins will let his camera pan along his actors in period costume, as if they were posing for the daguerreotypes slave-state Black people didn’t get to make unless they’d been whipped or were wanted. (The director has made a side project out of these shots, a nearly hourlong clip-reel called “The Gaze,” set to Britell’s score and available for free at https://vimeo.com/546795671.) Those images serve as a restoration of dignity, a reimagined past, and a reminder of a different kind of American imperative, the will to be acknowledged not as an inconvenience to your country’s history but as its backbone. At its strongest, “The Underground Railroad” isn’t just a TV show for you to watch. It’s a TV show that watches you.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Starring: Thuso Mbedu, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Pierre, William Jackson Harper, Peter Mullan, Mychal-Bella Bowman, Lily Rabe
On: Amazon Prime
All 10 episodes available May 14