Is Amazon's 'The Underground Railroad' Based on a True Story?

The stunning epic tale from Oscar winner Barry Jenkins certainly has its roots in historical events, but did this specific story happen?

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It’s only been four years since Barry Jenkins emphatically put his stamp on Hollywood with “Moonlight,” and now he’s putting his stamp on the world of television with the Amazon series “The Underground Railroad,” adapted from the Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead.

Jenkins directed all ten episodes of the series, and it shows — “The Underground Railroad” is a masterpiece. It tells the story of a young slave named Cora (Thuso Mbedu) who escapes a plantation in Georgia and makes a long, arduous journey across several states while being pursued by a dogged slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton).

It is, in every single episode, thoroughly devastating — but Cora keeps going through it all, because what else could she do?

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. The big tell for those going in blind will be that the Underground Railroad in this story is an actual railroad that travels through a lengthy system of caves, rather than a metaphorical description of the series of safehouses and routes that escaped slaves would make use of to get out of the South.

But, as was the case with another recent Amazon series, “Them” — which was inspired by the actual history of housing discrimination in the mid-20th century — “The Underground Railroad” is using its setting to illustrate a point. Or a series of points.

At the end of the first episode, the man who runs the first station Cora encounters says something that I think kinda sums up the thematic bent of the show.

“If you wanna see what this nation’s all about, you gotta ride the rails. Just look outside as you speed through and you’ll see the true face of America.”

What we get from there is a series of chapters that put on display some of the different manifestations that racism against Black folks has taken in America, both historically and in the present. In South Carolina, for example, all the white folks appear benevolent as they claim to want to uplift Black folks by educating and housing them — though they’re actually pulling a long-term genocide with the help of local doctors.

And in North Carolina they don’t bother with that pretense, embarking on a Nazi-ish campaign to straight up exterminate any Black person found in the state.

The “Gulliver’s Travels” references in the early part of “The Underground Railroad” isn’t just a nod — it’s the story telling you that’s this journey is allegorical. It’s just that unlike most allegories, this one is actually about what it’s actually about, instead of veiling it in any way.

So if you’re getting some YA fantasy kind of vibes from “The Underground Railroad,” it’s because you’re supposed to. This is essentially a journey through a heightened fantasy version of the world. It’s just a fantasy version of the world that is much closer to reality — and hits much closer to home — than something like “Harry Potter” or “His Dark Materials.”

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