The Underground Railroad

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Synopsis

A monumental reimagining of American history, Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 2016 novel is a harrowing and rhapsodic journey through a still-echoing past. Weaving together historical fiction with moments of magical realism, The Underground Railroad is a full sensory immersion into the world of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), who, fleeing slavery, embarks on a treacherous quest for freedom—and is menaced by violence, supported by a clandestine community fighting for liberation, and haunted by the people she loses along the way. With images of searing power and stirring poetry, Jenkins delivers an epic saga of survival and resilience that pushes the limited-series format to new heights of cinematic transcendence.

Picture 8/10

Barry Jenkins’ miniseries The Underground Railroad receives a Blu-ray special edition from The Criterion Collection. The ten episodes are presented in 1080p/24hz high-definition and spread across four dual-layer discs, with the first and last discs featuring two episodes each and the middle two featuring three. Episodes 1 through 9 are primarily in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, except for episodes 4 and 7, which are in 2.39:1. The final episode creatively uses both aspect ratios.

Criterion seems to have utilized the master provided by Amazon Studios, and the results are generally impressive. The digital cinematography is well-represented, though the darker scenes possess a somewhat muddy quality that affects black levels and shadow range. This can make some sequences appear flat, such as a particular scene along a dimly lit roadway in episode three, which Jenkins suggests was a deliberate choice in the commentary due to what is represented in the scene. Banding is occasionally noticeable, yet the overall image quality is slightly better than Amazon’s HD stream, though falls a bit short compared to their 4K HDR one (which does help with those darker sequences).

Daytime scenes are vibrant and dynamic, showcasing decent depth. While the color palette is somewhat restricted to beiges, greens, and oranges, these colors are well-saturated. The encode is solid, though some noise is detectable in the blacks, likely inherent to the original photography.

Overall, it’s a strong presentation—sharp, clean, and marginally superior to the high-definition streaming version on Amazon. However, as mentioned, it doesn't quite match the dynamic range offered by the 4K HDR stream.

Audio 8/10

The series features a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, with an additional descriptive audio track included. The Atmos presentation is generally understated, with dialogue predominantly anchored to the front channels while Nicholas Britell’s score (which I thought had a John Barry kind of vibe) is subtly mixed throughout the environment. However, the track has its moments to shine. Exterior scenes come alive with the ambient sounds of cicadas emanating from all directions, storms rumble ominously, trains roar through tunnels, and gunfire erupts in a barrage. These elements fill the soundfield wonderfully, creating a noticeable sense of height, immersing the viewer. I quite liked it.

Extras 9/10

Criterion includes a decent set of features for the series, the standout being an extensive audio commentary by Barry Jenkins spanning all ten episodes. Jenkins is joined by cinematographer James Laxton for episodes 5, 6, 8, and 9, and editor Joi McMillon for episodes 5, 6, and 9.

Jenkins wraps up the commentary by noting that he was told it was “crazy” to record a 10-hour track and acknowledges it might be equally “crazy”  for someone to listen to it all. Despite this, I found it neither taxing nor straining. The journey of adapting Colson Whitehead’s novel and the series' production is endlessly fascinating, and impressively, Jenkins and his collaborators (when they appear) manage to avoid repetition. What enhances the commentary's appeal is Jenkins' decision to record it in the order the episodes were filmed: 2, 1, 10, 8, 9, 3, 7, 5, 6, and 4.

Although watching the episodes in this order is unnecessary, it does add a layer of depth to the commentary. Each track is specific to its episode, but the production timeline and the obstacles and surprises encountered (including COVID-19) significantly influenced the final product. For instance, a moment in episode 9 featuring the sound of a blacksmith forging metal ended up inspiring a significant element in episode 4, the last one filmed. Budget constraints also played a role, with Jenkins noting that episode 2 (the first filmed) is technically impressive because they had more time to plan shots before time pressures increased. These factors even led to episodes being split or combined.

Throughout the commentary, Jenkins and his team delve into the reasoning behind technical decisions, from specific edits to the use of multiple aspect ratios. Jenkins also discusses film inspirations, revealing that Stalker influenced episode 10 (which isn’t that big of a shock if one has seen the episode). He frequently praises the performances and production design, highlighting actors and sets as they appear. Interestingly, the detail in the production led to scenes built around specific props, including a diary with crew-written entries that Jenkins loved (though the scene was deleted, it’s included in this set).

This commentary track is outstanding, and it’s even more so when one considers Jenkins’ initial insecurity about recording them. He had recorded one for his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, but dropped it due to his uncertainty around it (it was finally included as a second commentary in Criterion’s 2023 Blu-ray edition). The track also feels unfiltered, leading to some amusing moments, like when Jenkins’ stomach starts growling (he insists he is not that hungry). It requires dedication but is worthwhile when consumed episodically.

The remaining features are then found on discs one and four.

Disc one features a collection of teaser trailers created by Jenkins during lockdown, accompanied by an introduction where he explains his intent to make them expressive rather than promotional. There are also about 27 minutes of deleted scenes, Jenkins having discussed some of these throughout the commentary. The scenes include additional footage featuring the characters Homer and Will Poulter, the deleted diary-reading scene, and a few bookends to other scenes that made it into the series.

The remaining features are on disc four, starting with the 51-minute film The Gaze. This film is difficult to succinctly describe (at least for me), but it includes numerous shots of characters from the series, either through portraits or group shots, serving as a way for Jenkins to document his ancestors. Interestingly, this footage originated from costume and make-up tests, which Jenkins found so compelling that he repurposed it for this film. It proves so compelling, in fact, that I would have thought Jenkins intentionally filmed all of the footage as it was.

Following that, the disc concludes with a 4-minute promotional featurette from Amazon titled Building “The Underground Railroad”, featuring interviews with Jenkins and behind-the-scenes footage. Jenkins elaborates on this in the commentary, but in this featurette, he explains his attraction to the material, and the footage features the creation of the underground railroad in the series, which involved modifying existing rail lines and train stations. Since it’s promotional in nature it really on skims the surface, but the footage still proves interesting.

Criterion includes an insert featuring an insightful essay by Angelica Jade Bastién and, in a thoughtful touch, a graphic novel titled The Underground Railroad: Genesis, illustrated by Valentine de Landro and adapted/colored by Eric Skillman. This graphic novel chronicles the creation of the series’ Underground Railroad, which was planned as an episode but was too costly to film. Though it’s a shame it couldn’t be filmed, something is endearing in how it’s included here. A rather delightful touch to the release

Disappointingly, there are no interviews with Thuso Mbedu, Joel Edgerton, or other cast members, and nothing about the novel or its author, Colson Whitehead (outside of what it already discussed throughout the features). However, Jenkins and Criterion have assembled an impressive package. Jenkins’ commentary is especially invaluable, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring everything here.

Closing

The presentation is solid, though it is somewhat constrained by the how it was filmed. While I might have hoped for a bit more in the way of supplemental materials, Jenkins' commentary spanning all ten episodes is remarkably thorough and effectively covers every aspect of the series' production.

BUY AT: Amazon.com Amazon.ca

 
 
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Year: 2021
Time: 585 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1223
Licensor: Amazon Studios
Release Date: June 25 2024
MSRP: $79.95
 
Blu-ray
4 Discs | BD-50
1.78:1 ratio
2.39:1 ratio
English 2.0 PCM Stereo
English 7.2.4 Dolby Atmos
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 New audio commentary featuring Barry Jenkins and, on select chapters, cinematographer James Laxton and lead editor Joi McMillon, with an introduction by the director   New graphic-novel adaptation of “Genesis,” an unfilmed chapter of The Underground Railroad written by Jenkins and Nathan C. Parker, with an introduction by Jenkins   The Gaze, a companion film by Jenkins, with a new introduction by the director   Deleted scenes   Seven teasers made by Jenkins, with a new introduction by the director   Building “The Underground Railroad,” a short program featuring Barry Jenkins and production designer Mark Friedberg discussing the creation of the train-station sets   An essay by critic Angelica Jade Bastién