This story about “The Underground Railroad,” its creator Barry Jenkins, and stars Thuso Mbedu and William Jackson Harper first appeared in the Limited Series & TV Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
The penultimate episode of Barry Jenkins’ Amazon Prime Video limited series “The Underground Railroad” ends with the needle drop of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” The song underscores a scene — spoilers to follow — in which escaped slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu) shoots and kills Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), the slave catcher who has been dragging her back every time she makes it further on her journey to freedom from a Georgia plantation.
The Grammy-winning 2018 track from Gambino, aka Donald Glover, is a commentary on the gun violence, particularly against Black people, in today’s America. But that’s exactly why Jenkins wanted it for one of the 10 episodes in his series based on Colson Whitehead’s historical novel set in pre-Civil War America. In fact, Jenkins chose to end every episode of “The Underground Railroad” with a contemporary track, while the rest of the show is scored in a more period-appropriate manner by Nicholas Britell, who also worked with Jenkins on “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
“The songs at the end of episodes happened organically when we were editing the show while the protests over the killing of George Floyd were happening,” Jenkins said. “We started to see videos of people taking this piece of score from ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ and using it to underscore people voicing themselves in these protests. And we thought, ‘Well, isn’t this strange? We made this period piece, and now people are using it to underscore this contemporary context.”
When Jenkins and Britell noticed this, they were working on an episode whose ending reminded Jenkins of “Hey U,” a 1995 song by Groove Theory that he remembered from high school. “And then I thought, ‘Well, why can’t this woman in 1995 be speaking to this woman in 1855?’” he said. “And I realized, this is the connection between my ancestors and this contemporary work that we’re making now. Let’s chase this. So we started trying to figure out the end of every episode: What is a song made by a contemporary artist that is speaking directly to the experiences of my ancestors, as envisioned in this show?”
“This Is America,” he said, seemed particularly pertinent for a show that was made during the Trump administration, when Jenkins was hearing the slogan “Make American Great Again” “over and over again for the four years the show was in gestation.” And he used it at a significant moment for Cora, a young woman who’s been mercilessly hunted partly because of a spark that she doesn’t even recognize in herself.
“Everybody sees this thing that is special about her,” Mbedu said. “She says to Royal (a free-born Black man played by William Jackson Harper), ‘I don’t know what this is. I don’t know what it all means. All I know is that I’m tired of running.’ And I think there is something that Ridgeway also sees in Cora. There’s a fight in her. There’s a fire in her. There is something that even from the beginning set her apart from her own community, a community that had consciously ostracized her after she was abandoned by her mother. Ridgeway wants to take her back to the plantation because he says, ‘We can’t afford to have more people like you. The more people there are that are like you, the less it means for the white supremacist way of thinking to succeed.’”
For the majority of the series, the white supremacist way of thinking does succeed. Even when Cora feels safe while embraced by Royal and his fellow free Black men and women at the Valentine Farm in Indiana, tragedy strikes as white men descend upon the vineyard.
“It was tough,” said Harper, whose character is a conductor of the metaphorical Underground Railroad, which is depicted as an actual train in the book and series. “It was really triggering for me, and I found myself blind with rage in certain moments shooting those scenes. But the thing that we really leaned into was the hope and the light that is Valentine Farm. I deal with people asking me questions about race a lot, and my instant reply is, ‘It’s never really a problem until someone else makes it a problem.’ My life is fine, and then someone does something and all of a sudden throws everything into a really dark place. But it’s not like I go through the world looking for everything to fall apart. And I think that’s sort of what the deal is with Valentine Farm. It’s been successful and safe for a very, very long time, and that is our existence.
“The massacre at the end of Episode 9, that’s something that is out of the ordinary, and not what anyone was expecting. And so it’s tough. But in order to continue through your life, you need to live in the positivity as much as you can. That’s what we did, until things changed. And the same thing goes for Cora and Royal—they get to a certain place, but life has other plans for us and that’s just the way it is. But in the meantime, you just live in the beauty and the peace of those relationships as much as you can.”
Even when Cora seemingly makes it to freedom, climbing into the cart of a Black man offering assistance, she isn’t secure in that freedom. “Cora still thinks, for whatever reason, ‘I might have to keep fighting to get to that freedom,’” Mbedu said. “And I think that’s a direct commentary on society today. A lot has happened in the past, and we find ourselves in this moment where we question, are we really free, even today?”