Film & TV

The Underground Railroad Teaches Hatred and Self-Hatred

Thuso Mbedu in The Underground Railroad. (Amazon)
Barry Jenkins’s warped slave history is worse than dumbed-down.

While politicians battle critical race theory, the progressive dogma and its offshoot, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, have already taken hold in Hollywood. This week’s example is the Barry Jenkins series The Underground Railroad, now streaming on Amazon and warping America’s racial history for anyone who watches it.

This ten-episode program is a big-ticket item meant to confirm Jenkins’s seriousness in which he dramatizes the efforts by two slaves, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), to escape Southern tyranny and go north, where their struggle continues. Jenkins’s convoluted opus is bankrolled by an industry that already hailed his film Moonlight (2016), an intersectional race-gender conceit of nearly laughable preciousness. The Underground Railroad continues that conceit from its opening: Slo-mo images of a black couple falling down a pit (a sunken place) alongside an infinite ladder. More slo-mo shots of the woman and a gay male running in reverse through a field. Next, a subterranean locomotive on railroad tracks. Then huddling slave women surround a bloody afterbirth plopped onto a cabin floor. And finally, the beleaguered young black woman lamenting: “The first and last thing my mama gave me was apology.”

Jenkins, in his first five minutes, can’t wait to turn the black slave experience into poetry. But the problem is that it’s a third-rate version of cinematic “poetry,” so decorative and refined that the history of black suffering and perseverance becomes a fantasy of racial oppression, yet ignores facts of social advancement. It seems conjured out of the indulgence of a privileged generation that has to imagine suffering — a flippant take on Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (similar to Jenkins’s plodding, obtuse film adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk).

In The Underground Railroad, Jenkins’s shamelessness meets that of novelist Colson Whitehead, who published his complementary literary conceit and bowdlerization of black history the same year as Moonlight. Jenkins and Whitehead use identity politics — identity poetics — for race-baiting. Their streaming-series collaboration appeals to the lip-smacking delectation of liberals who have bought into the race-gender historical conceit of the 1619 Project and critical race theory.

Both Jenkins and Whitehead epitomize the new media trade. They deliver the immiseration expected of black media workers, which is eventually lauded with Oscars and literary prizes, like the work of their British counterpart, Steve McQueen. This obvious sense of patronage defines The Underground Railroad as another in the proliferating series of programs that trivialize the history of U.S. slavery and oppression.

Jenkins’s artsy effects include glamorized portraits (representations) of blacks; not the period-realism that accounted for the depiction of slavery in Roots (1977). This recalls Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust rather than Haile Gerima’s Sankofa, because Jenkins’s race fantasy substitutes style for experience, and 1619 Project mythology for history. His pretense is a form of sophistry. The Underground Railroad speaks to an audience educated in critical race theory that makes them subject to specious manipulation.

Note an early exchange between white slave master and black overseer: “I knew you let your slaves have revels, but I didn’t know they were so extravagant.” One extravagance includes a slave child’s reciting the Declaration of Independence just to incite a slaver’s anger. In another showpiece, a runaway slave is whipped and immolated, the savagery followed by fiddle music and whites dancing. This is witnessed by a gathering of the plantation slaves — no doubt Jenkins’s metaphor for the critical-race-theory audience forced to observe brutal dramatizations of racism, intended to incite them politically.

But it’s an unhelpful metaphor, just like Whitehead’s perverse symbolism, which misinterprets the “underground railroad” idea. The actual, secretly organized complex of safe houses and roads that escaped slaves took to the North and Canada was named metaphorically, coded to evade the scrutiny of white slave owners. But Whitehead literalized the metaphor, and Jenkins corroborates that pomposity, neglecting black spirituality, blunting any poetic, salvific beauty of liberation.

Everything here looks just like Us, Lovecraft Country, Watchmen, and Them — sci-fi fodder. Jenkins’s overrefined sense of black history — a pageant of fabulous nightmares — is the real extravagance in The Underground Railroad. (A sexual subtheme includes slave-master voyeurism including Caesar’s penchant to “sneak and go around the swamp with other men on your back” instead of procreating.)

By appropriating an OutKast hip-hop song for the end credits, this is worse than dumbed-down. It proves how contemporary black pop culture participates in its own corruption, misunderstood as artistic liberation. This confusion has become the language through which black artists such as Jenkins communicate with the industry’s white liberal moguls. The Underground Railroad isn’t really about history. It’s white exploitation that teaches blacks to distrust and hate whites, and whites to distrust and hate themselves.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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