3 reasons to watch The Underground Railroad – the hard-hitting adaptation of Colston Whitehead’s bestseller

The TV adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning novel is finally here. Discover what director Barry Jenkins and actors Thuso Mbedu and Sheila Atim had to say about the making of the series, and why you need to watch it.

By Becky Gamester-Newton Published: 26 May 2021 - 11.53am
Amazon Prime Video The Underground Railroad on Amazon Prime Video

The Underground Railroad is one of the most important shows of this year, examining the darkest days of American slavery.

As the series lands in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, we’ve highlighted the three reasons why it should be on your must-watch list.

The Underground Railroad: Plot, cast and everything you need to know

1. It’s directed by Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins directs The Underground Railroad Amazon Prime Video

There really couldn’t be a better director for The Underground Railroad, which explores slavery in the 19th century.

Barry Jenkins was at the helm for Moonlight, the LGBT-themed drama that was nominated for eight Oscars in 2016 and won the coveted award for Best Picture.  His third directorial feature film, If Beale Street Could Talk, also won critical acclaim and was nominated for Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards in 2018.

Thuso Mbedu, who stars in the series as Cora, said Jenkins was relentless in trying to get the best out of her even before she won the role.

Speaking at the international press conference, Thuso laughed: “We had the test shoot… Barry worked me. He worked me so hard, my contact lens flipped in on itself!

“But it was amazing. And through that, in the test shoot, I was like, you know what: I've been stretched, I've been challenged. I did my best. And even if I don't get the role, I know that I've grown just from the audition process.”

2. It will shock you – and it needs to

Sheila Atim plays Mabel in The Underground Railroad Amazon Prime Video

As readers of the Colston Whitehead novel on which the series is based will know, The Underground Railroad presents an unflinching narrative about slavery and the antebellum era – which feels more important than ever.

Given the traumatic subject matter, the production team went to great lengths to look after the cast’s mental wellbeing.

“It was as important as getting the scene right or the logistics,” Jenkins revealed.

“It’s not worth creating these things if it’s going to destroy us in the process. We had a therapist – or [who] we referred to us a guidance counsellor – on set at all times.

“I think we also had each other. For me, it was about trying to always understand the moral and ethical line of what we were doing.

“I think everyone knew they had the freedom to decide for themselves… as performers what they were asking of themselves and the character, at what point is this not worth it?

“I think we lifted each other up in this really beautiful way – and I mean from the top of the crew list all the way down to the bottom. I think everybody knew if you needed an out, an out was there.”

British actor Sheila Atim, who plays Mabel, added: “I remember Barry saying lots of times: ‘Everyone, it looks very real. Everything looks very real. So, when you get on set, just be aware that you are in a position where this could bring up stuff for you’.”

3. It’s visually incredible

The Underground Railroad Amazon Prime Video

The high production values and awesome cinematography are maintained throughout the series, without compromising on the gritty plot.

Jenkins explained that he refused to rely on special effects for the trains and the tunnels shown.

“I told Mark Friedburg, our production designer… this can’t be fake. I want real tracks, real trains, real tunnels. I don’t want blue screen, I don’t want CGI.

“And so we found a private rail network and we built our tunnels above them.”

Mbedu said it was an incredible experience on set.

She recalled: “[I remember] the first couple of days on set, if not the first day, where everything was bigger than anything I could have imagined.

“A some point I actually snuck away just to step back and take in everything that I was seeing unfold before me. I even took a picture of it, from the outside, the tunnels over the train tracks.

“I couldn’t believe everything that I was seeing. I felt like I was in the presence of brilliance.

“And then seeing the different types of trains that Cora rides in from Georgia. It’s like this rickety boxcar barely holding it together to then Indiana later on when it’s the big, grand, majestic thing.”

Atim was also wowed by the level of detail during filming.

“I was on the plantation sets, and one of the things that really sticks in my mind is I had to hold a fake placenta.

“It was really hard to hold because it was so difficult and slippery. But I think those little attentions to detail… work everywhere throughout the set, whether it was the huts or the cotton fields.”

The Underground Railroad is streaming on Amazon Prime Video from Friday, May 14.

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