'The Underground Railroad': Slavery saga hits screens | DW | 14.05.2021 (2022)

Two influential Black creators combine as "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins transforms Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a powerful TV series.

The 19th-century network of secret routes and safe houses that was developed in the USto help enslaved African Americans escape to free states or Canada was referred to as the Underground Railroad.

Those who guided the enslaved people were known as "conductors," while hiding places such as private homes, churches and schoolhouses were "stations," "safe houses" or "depots."The people organizing theselocations were"stationmasters."

In his 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead transforms the secret network into an actual railway that runs through tunnels.

The novel won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, with the committee praisingits "smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America."

Upon reading Whitehead's book, Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins immediately knew he wanted to adapt it — not as a feature film, but rather as a TV series, which was for him the best way to convey the scope of the work.

All 10 episodes of the limited series have now been released worldwide on Amazon Prime as ofMay 14.

Shattering the American myth

As a child, Jenkins imagined the Underground Railroad to be something like that describedin Whitehead's book, with tracks and tunnels allowingescaping Black people to ride trains under the earth.

When he eventually realized that it was only a metaphor, it felt like finding out "that Santa Claus and the tooth fairy aren't real," the filmmaker told Sight & Sound magazine. But the realization was accompanied with a new understandingof ahorrifying system of slavery.

Far from trivializing the horrors of history, the magical realism of the novel — and now the series — rather emphasizes the nightmare experienced by the slaves whose labor built the wealth of those living "the American dream."

Even if there's an actual train, escaping from the living hell of a Georgia cotton plantation is not a simple ride to freedom. After they manage to escape, the story'sprotagonistCora (portrayed by Thuso Mbedu)and her friend Caesar (Aaron Pierre)quickly realize that thethreat remains, even in states with apparently progressive policies towardslaves.

And slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) is never too far behind, accompanied by his loyal 10-year-old Black sidekick, Homer (Chase W. Dillon). The man is obsessed with hunting down Corasince her mother was the only slave who managed to escape from him.

Thuso Mbedu in the role of Cora, right, with another breakout star of the series, William Jackson Harper

A personal story

Barry Jenkins also felt a strong connection with the novel's main character. The pain Corafeels from being abandoned by her mother—who leftthe plantation without her—is one of the girl'smain motivations to escape slavery.

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"I felt the same thing with my mother," the filmmaker told public broadcaster NPR, "because for the first 25 years of my life, I didn't understand why she didn't take care of me. I didn't understand why I was estranged from her."

As Jenkins revealed after winning the best picture Oscar for Moonlight in 2017, like the boy portrayed in that film, his own mother wasaddicted to crack cocaineand he was raised by another woman.

Two of the world's most acclaimed Black creators

With his follow-upnovel, The Nickel Boys (2019),Colson Whitehead becamethe fourth author in history to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice.

Colson Whitehead's next novel, 'Harlem Shuffle,' is to be published on September 14, 2021

Meanwhile, following his Oscar sweep with Moonlight, Jenkins suddenly became one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. He has since adapted novelist James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk into another critically-acclaimed film, and has been hired to direct Disney's Lion King prequel.

But even before the author and director wereincluded in the 100 most influential people list inTime magazine in2017, the twowerediscussing a screenadaptation ofThe Underground Railroad.

In fact, even before he directed his first feature film, Medicine for Melancholy, in2008,Jenkins alreadywanted to adaptWhitehead's first book from 1999, The Intuitionist, butcouldn't affordtherights.

The filmmaker did, however, manageto option the rights for The Underground Railroad before Moonlight opened. Instead of discussing previous films on slavery, he convinced the novelist by citing as inspiration works by Paul Thomas Andersonsuch as There Will Be Blood (2007)and The Master (2012).

A redemptive narrative

Even though the series combines stylistic influences from world cinema, previous screenrepresentations of slavery — from the 1977 TV adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots to Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (2013) — were the touchstone thatallowedJenkins to go one step further withThe Underground Railroad.

Like those works, the story realistically depicts the brutal reality of slavery in the 19th century.But through itsfantasy elements, it offers another level of redemption —the sense that Black creatorsare now taking thispainful narrativeinto their own hands.

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What were The Underground Railroad secret code words? ›

The code words often used on the Underground Railroad were: “tracks” (routes fixed by abolitionist sympathizers); “stations” or “depots” (hiding places); “conductors” (guides on the Underground Railroad); “agents” (sympathizers who helped the slaves connect to the Railroad); “station masters” (those who hid slaves in ...

Are there any movies about The Underground Railroad? ›

“The Underground Railroad,” which is set to premiere on Amazon Prime Video, is an adaptation of Colson Whitehead's 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.

Is Netflix Underground Railroad a true story? ›

You might be wondering whether “The Underground Railroad,” being set in the antebellum South, is based on a true story. The answer is a definite no. The story you see on this show, and in Whitehead's novel, is a work of fiction.

What were slaves called on The Underground Railroad? ›

The term Underground Railroad referred to the entire system, which consisted of many routes called lines. The free individuals who helped runaway slaves travel toward freedom were called conductors, and the fugitive slaves were referred to as cargo.

What did slaves call their master? ›

Enslaver versus Master, Owner, or Slaveholder

An enslaver exerted power over those they kept in bondage. They referred to themself as a master or owner - hierarchical language which reinforced a sense of natural authority.

Did quilt codes exist? ›

Quilt codes are not mentioned in the 19th century slave narratives or 1930s oral testimonies of former slaves. Additionally, no original quilts remain. "What I think they've done is they've taken a folklore and said it's historical fact," Wright said.

What year did slavery end? ›

The House Joint Resolution proposing the 13th amendment to the Constitution, January 31, 1865; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1999; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.

Was the Underground Railroad really a train? ›

Despite its name, the Underground Railroad wasn't a railroad in the way Amtrak or commuter rail is. It wasn't even a real railroad. It was a metaphoric one, where “conductors,” that is basically escaped slaves and intrepid abolitionists, would lead runaway slaves from one “station,” or save house to the next.

How long did the Underground Railroad last? ›

system used by abolitionists between 1800-1865 to help enslaved African Americans escape to free states.

Was Valentine farm a real place? ›

Our History

Originally established in 1975, Valentines Farm was re-conceived as a small biodynamic farm in 2015. Our mission is to grow high-quality food, educate our farmers in training, and provide for the local community. At Valentines Farm we produce a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruits.

Was Cora from Underground Railroad real? ›

When Cora, the fictional protagonist of Colson Whitehead's 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, steps onto a boxcar bound for the North, the train's conductor offers her a wry word of advice: “If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails.

How old is Cora in the Underground Railroad? ›

Cora, who is 15 years old when the book begins, has a very difficult life on the plantation, in part because she has conflicts with the other slaves.

What happened to slaves if they were caught reading? ›

In most southern states, anyone caught teaching a slave to read would be fined, imprisoned, or whipped. The slaves themselves often suffered severe punishment for the crime of literacy, from savage beatings to the amputation of fingers and toes.

What was a common punishment for runaway slaves? ›

Numerous escaped slaves upon return were to face harsh punishments such as amputation of limbs, whippings, branding, hobbling, and many other horrible acts. Individuals who aided fugitive slaves were charged and punished under this law.

Who ended slavery? ›

On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln approved the Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the proposed amendment to the state legislatures. The necessary number of states (three-fourths) ratified it by December 6, 1865.

What did slaves drink? ›

in which slaves obtained alcohol outside of the special occasions on which their masters allowed them to drink it. Some female house slaves were assigned to brew cider, beer, and/or brandy on their plantations.

Who started slavery? ›

Sumer or Sumeria is still thought to be the birthplace of slavery, which grew out of Sumer into Greece and other parts of ancient Mesopotamia. The Ancient East, specifically China and India, didn't adopt the practice of slavery until much later, as late as the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC.

What language did the African slaves speak? ›

In the English colonies Africans spoke an English-based Atlantic Creole, generally called plantation creole. Low Country Africans spoke an English-based creole that came to be called Gullah.

What did the quilt square a bear paw mean? ›

The Bear Paw block pattern would be a sign that slaves were on the right track to life-saving resources and shelter on their long trek to freedom.

What do quilters do with all their quilts? ›

I get asked fairly often what I do with all the quilts I make - do you? In fact, I got asked twice this last weekend. There's really a very simple answer. I USE THEM - In my home, they hang on walls, cover beds, stack on dressers, lay over couches, pile in closets and dresser drawers.

What does the Monkey Wrench quilt mean? ›

Monkey Wrench: A signal to gather all the tools required for the fleeing slave's journey, meaning the physical tools, as well as the mental and spiritual ones.

Does slavery still exist? ›

Today, 167 countries still have some form of modern slavery, which affects an estimated 46 million people worldwide. Modern slavery can be difficult to detect and recognize in many cases.

Is there still slavery today? ›

There are an estimated 21 million to 45 million people trapped in some form of slavery today. It's sometimes called “Modern-Day Slavery” and sometimes “Human Trafficking." At all times it is slavery at its core.

Who were the first slaves in history? ›

Slavery operated in the first civilizations (such as Sumer in Mesopotamia, which dates back as far as 3500 BCE). Slavery features in the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1860 BCE), which refers to it as an established institution. Slavery was widespread in the ancient world.

Who was the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad? ›

Our Headlines and Heroes blog takes a look at Harriet Tubman as the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. Tubman and those she helped escape from slavery headed north to freedom, sometimes across the border to Canada.

Who is the leader of the Underground Railroad? ›

HARRIET TUBMAN – The Best-Known Figure in UGR History

She made by some accounts 19 or more rescue trips to the south and helped more than 300 people escape slavery.

Where was the final destination of the Underground Railroad? ›

For the enslaved people who "rode" the Underground Railroad, many of them considered Canada their final destination. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 freedom seekers settled in Canada, half of whom came between 1850 and 1860.

Where did runaway slaves go? ›

African American men and women of all ages left the plantation and headed North for freedom. But most runaway slaves were young men who could withstand the hardships of fugitive life. To escape the deep South and make it North to New York, Massachusetts or Canada meant a journey of hundreds of miles -- usually on foot.

How long did it take to travel the Underground Railroad? ›

The journey would take him 800 miles and six weeks, on a route winding through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, tracing the byways that fugitive slaves took to Canada and freedom.

How many slaves ran away? ›

The Underground Railroad Era 1820-1860. Thousands of slaves fled bondage each year in the decades before the Civil War. The most frequent calculation is that around one thousand per year actually escaped. Some runaways sought a brief respite from slavery or simply wanted to reach family and friends.

What did Royal do to Cora? ›

In the ghost tunnel, there's a small moment where Royal gives Cora the lamp to hold, instead of the torch she's holding. It's a sweet gesture!

What does Cora reveal to Ridgeway after her capture? ›

Once Ridgeway is in chains, Cora kicks him in the face three times, telling herself it is in honor of three murders: Lovey, Caesar, and Jasper. However, in reality they are all for Cora herself.

How did Ridgeway find Cora in Indiana? ›

They ransack the farm and set fire to the farmhouse, killing or capturing everyone they find. Royal is fatally shot; with his final words, he tells Cora to go to the abandoned underground railroad station and find out where it leads. Cora starts to escape, but Ridgeway and Homer catch her.

How much is true in the Underground Railroad? ›

Whilst the novel and the series isn't entirely based on a true story, the network itself was very much a real thing and helped hundreds of thousands of slaves escape.

What happened to Cora's mother in the Underground Railroad? ›

While Cora avoided the snake, her mother wasn't so lucky. Just as Mabel realizes that she's in the swamp and is about to go back for her daughter, she is bitten by the venomous snake. Mabel dies in the swamp, never to be found by anyone.

Where does Cora end up? ›

Cora eventually arrives in a closed-down station in North Carolina.

Are Cora and Bessie the same person? ›

Cora is the heroine of The Underground Railroad. She was born on Randall plantation in Georgia to her mother Mabel, and she never knew her father, Grayson, who died before she was born. Her grandmother, Ajarry, was born in Africa before being kidnapped and brought to America.

Why is Cora called Bessie? ›

Cora and Caesar travel the underground railroad to South Carolina, where Cora is given forged papers identifying her as a freewoman named Bessie Carpenter. “Bessie” works first as a maid for a white family, then as an actor in museum displays that depict slave life.

Who killed Polly in Underground Railroad? ›

In the book, Polly dies by suicide after her baby is stillborn. In the show, Polly is married to Moses, and her baby is likewise stillborn; afterward, she's forced to act as a wet nurse for a set of twins born to an enslaved mother on a nearby plantation.

Why were slaves not allowed to know their birthdays? ›

The slavery culture demanded that slaves be treated as property, and to this end, slaves needed to believe they were property. Having no birth record and no true knowledge of one's age helped establish this mindset of being a non-person.

What were slaves not allowed to do? ›

There were numerous restrictions to enforce social control: slaves could not be away from their owner's premises without permission; they could not assemble unless a white person was present; they could not own firearms; they could not be taught to read or write, nor could they transmit or possess “inflammatory” ...

What were the 2 types of slaves? ›

Temple slavery, state slavery, and military slavery were relatively rare and distinct from domestic slavery, but in a very broad outline they can be categorized as the household slaves of a temple or the state. The other major type of slavery was productive slavery.

What did slaves wear on their feet? ›

The majority of enslaved people probably wore plain unblackened sturdy leather shoes without buckles. Enslaved women also wore jackets or waistcoats that consisted of a short fitted bodice that closed in the front.

What were slaves whipped with? ›

FLOGGINGS. The slaves are terribly lacerated with whips, paddles, &c.; red pepper and salt are rubbed into their mangled flesh; hot brine and turpentine are poured into their gashes; and innumerable other tortures inflicted upon them.

What states was slavery legal? ›

States that allowed slavery included:
  • Arkansas.
  • Missouri.
  • Mississippi.
  • Louisiana.
  • Alabama.
  • Kentucky.
  • Tennessee.
  • Virginia.

Who started slavery in Africa? ›

Slavery in northern Africa dates back to ancient Egypt. The New Kingdom (1558–1080 BC) brought in large numbers of slaves as prisoners of war up the Nile valley and used them for domestic and supervised labour. Ptolemaic Egypt (305 BC–30 BC) used both land and sea routes to bring slaves in.

Which country made slavery illegal first? ›

From the first day of its existence, Haiti banned slavery. It was the first country to do so. The next year, Haiti published its first constitution.

Is slavery still legal in the US? ›

Visitors have described the drive up to the Louisiana State Penitentiary as a trip back in time. With men forced to labor in its fields, some still picking cotton, for as little as two cents an hour, the prison was — and is — a plantation.

What was Harriet Tubman's code name? ›

Tubman's codename was “Moses,” and she was illiterate her entire life. “Come with me if you want to live.” Other Underground Railroad code names included “Canaan” for Canada and Spiritual Songs for directions along the Railroad.

How did they communicate in the Underground Railroad? ›

During the time of the Underground Railroad it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, so for most slaves, singing was their main form of communication. Their songs were used to express what they believed in and cared about when they celebrated.

What were some symbols used in the Underground Railroad? ›

The Underground Railroad Symbols
  • Cora's Garden. The garden is a small patch of land on Randall, just three yards squared, on which Cora grows vegetables. ...
  • Dance. In the novel, dance is shown to be both a source of joy and of suffering. ...
  • Hob. ...
  • Griffin Building. ...
  • The Freedom Trail.

What did slaves drink? ›

in which slaves obtained alcohol outside of the special occasions on which their masters allowed them to drink it. Some female house slaves were assigned to brew cider, beer, and/or brandy on their plantations.

Who was called Black Moses? ›

Harriet Tubman is most well-known for her work on the Underground Railroad. Prior to and during the Civil War era, she was called Black Moses, because, like Moses, she led people out of slavery. But there's another chapter in Harriet Tubman's story that's not as commonly told.

What year did slavery end? ›

The House Joint Resolution proposing the 13th amendment to the Constitution, January 31, 1865; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1999; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.

How did slaves know to go north? ›

As slave lore tells it, the North Star played a key role in helping slaves to find their way—a beacon to true north and freedom. Escaping slaves could find it by locating the Big Dipper, a well-recognized asterism most visible in the night sky in late winter and spring.

Why did slaves sing? ›

Music was a way for slaves to express their feelings whether it was sorrow, joy, inspiration or hope. Songs were passed down from generation to generation throughout slavery. These songs were influenced by African and religious traditions and would later form the basis for what is known as “Negro Spirituals”. Col.

Who was the most famous member of the Underground Railroad? ›

Our Headlines and Heroes blog takes a look at Harriet Tubman as the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. Tubman and those she helped escape from slavery headed north to freedom, sometimes across the border to Canada.

Why did they call it Underground Railroad? ›

(The first literal underground railroad did not exist until 1863.) According to John Rankin, "It was so called because they who took passage on it disappeared from public view as really as if they had gone into the ground. After the fugitive slaves entered a depot on that road no trace of them could be found.

What did the Wagon Wheel quilt mean? ›

Here is a list of some frequently used quilt patterns: Wagon Wheel/Carpenter's Wheel: This was a signal to the slaves to pack the items that were needed for travel by wagon or that could be used while traveling.

Did slaves make quilts? ›

Slaves made quilts for the plantation family, sometimes under the supervision of the plantation mistress, but WPA interviews attest to the prevalence of quiltmaking in the slave quarters for their own use as well. Some slave seamstresses became highly regarded for their skill.


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