Yho! So where do I even start? Usually, when a film or series shows a disclaimer for sensitive viewers, I just shrug it off and brace myself for whatever is coming… However, this was the very first production I struggled to watch at a go…
As a 90’s kid, I often find myself defending the labeling of being a ‘born free’, mostly because technically, I was born just before the anti-apartheid revolutionary political leader, Nelson Mandela officially became the president of the country – but mainly because I somehow want to be closer to being part of a revolutionary generation that fought off the shrewd colonial oppression of black bodies in South Africa.
Besides the very obvious effects of embedded generational systems that still oppress us today, the references that we hold on to in our generation are those of the stories our grandparents and parents relate to us about their experiences of living under the apartheid regime, texts from High School history classes, widely celebrated historic events, as well as books and movies that have portrayed the story of many black South African freedom fighters.
As soon as Thuso Mbedu’s portrait appeared at the Joburg Theatre screen’s Watch Party on the first episode’s premiere night, the whole room erupted with cheers and celebratory chants and I could see how everyone’s face beamed with pride, while eavesdropping on a conversation the guy behind me was having with a friend, about how he knew Thuso would make it this far.
In her very own words during an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, “the series is about Cora who was born and bred on a slave plantation in Georgia. She is approached by Caesar (Aaron Pierre) who tells her they can find freedom up North”. In the series, Cora and Caesar go on a journey where they secretly commute underground trains, in a bid to finding and pursuing their freedom, away from slavery. But this journey is met with distressing and unbearable scenes of black slaves being persecuted. Through all this, Cora is still hopeful to eventually escaping this pain.
“The series masterfully crafted cinematography not only serves to elaborate on its story but to also elevate the poignancy of the characters plight. Through effective usage of the camera crane movement to highlight the scale of protagonists and others within Cora’s world, we observe where in the social order she is placed, socially and geographically” explained a filmmaker friend I took with me to the Watch Party. He also elaborated on how the sharp lenses used were complimented with soft warm lighting in a country biome bathed in natural beauty, painted with details begging to have a second view to take in – only for the harsh cruelty of the era’s norms to shock you in a manner that’s less cringy but more gruesome.
Pacing around, up and down, while trying to settle my rage and emotions was a constant battle. I kept hitting the pause button, making any excuse possible to avoid finishing the uncomfortable scenes such as a forced rape between two slaves, instigated by a White master to feed some kind of disgusting fetish he might have had as well as the hanging and burning of a slave, while alive – accompanied by amusement and entertainment value enjoyed by the slave masters and their guests during what looks like some kind of an outdoor garden, tea party.
Another scene among many others that tore me apart was when Cora was handcuffed to a deceased runaway slave she was captured with, as punishment for attempting to escape the harrowing torture she had to endure by the slave catcher, Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who is on a relentless mission to find and terribly abuse her for killing a white boy (in self-defense) while he tried to attack her. He is obsessed with finding her, every time she manages to slip out of his sight. Ridgeway’s character represents the colonial system and their beliefs of entitlement to superiority.
Oprah Winfrey asks a question to Thuso during an interview about how she recommends viewers take care of their mental health while and after watching the series. “I recommend that people pace themselves. When I got the footage, Barry Jenkins (Film Director), told me to pace myself. I made the mistake of allowing myself to go with it. I watched it over three days but it was a lot to take in, in a short space of time. Take a walk, get some fresh air, process what is happening with someone that you trust because having it just be in your head can mess you up. If you have someone you can talk to about your feelings, that goes a long way”, she shares.
The Underground Railroad opened my eyes and reminded me what it took for us to enjoy the freedom we have today. As a young, black, South African woman, I can’t even imagine going through what our ancestors went through and this has encouraged me not to be ignorant and afraid to confront racism when it rears its ugly head.
I’m still enraged. I’m mad. I’m unsettled – but hopeful the coming generations will live in a completely free world and all this would be as a result of the seed that was planted decades ago.
Like the late great legend, Mama Miriam Makeba emphasised in a song, A luta continua! The struggle continues.