The Appearance of Light: On Barry Jenkins’s “The Underground Railroad”
By Jorge CotteJune 24, 2021
Cora is the protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed novel and comes to our screens via Barry Jenkins’s limited series on Amazon Prime. As with any adaptation, these texts illuminate and reflect on each other, but the circuit between novel and adaptation is complicated by the novel’s relationship to its own historical source material — it follows Cora’s escape on a literal underground railroad, drawing on and anachronistically embellishing historical US contexts from the early 19th century to Jim Crow — and by Jenkins’s associative relationship to storytelling, his attentions to moments of stillness and plays of pure luminescence. The series expands on the novel, adding characters and backstory, but it is a critical translation that foregrounds technologies of seeing. On The Underground Railroad, illumination travels across media, refracting and shapeshifting, secreted through description in the novel, chemical writing with light in photography, and as the force behind celluloid’s live projection. Screens supply their own light, and are glowing, chromatic windows, through which we might see or be framed.
Through Jenkins’s sensibilities, The Underground Railroad remixes the conventions of the small screen. The show bears televisual aspects, such as needle drops that punctuate each episode’s ending credits and digressions that other forms lack space to accommodate, but Jenkins’s ambitious tele-cinema emerges in a streaming environment that flaunts its freedom from commercial breaks and the limitations of standardized run-times. The series is episodic, but its episodes owe as much of a debt to those of Whitehead’s novel — a picaresque, like Gulliver’s Travels — as they do the formal conventions of episodic television series. The show plays with characters like a novel, trusting viewers to integrate an ensemble of conductors, antagonists, and allies, who spark and recede into the trains’ dust clouds. It lingers on moments that don’t advance the plot, refusing to telegraph to viewers how they should feel. The language of Whitehead’s novel is pushed beyond depiction and beyond analogy, refracted on the screen.
The media context in which the show arrives is unavoidable. To watch the show, we must navigate Amazon’s video service, where the work appears next to a standard procedural like Bosch, a niche film anthology like Small Axe, and a surrealist dreamscape like Undone. Someone somewhere is coming off a binge of old episodes of Downton Abbey, deciding whether to dig into The Underground Railroad or just watch Mission: Impossible. Maybe we will find it in streaming’s identity-driven genres, before Comedy and Coming of Age — Black Voices. It is perhaps only in this context that The Underground Railroad’s category avoidance makes sense, on the current of Barry Jenkins’s filmmaking journey, adapting from a novelist James Wood accused of writing in a “filmic” mode, and at a time when content is produced at increasing scales, faced with a demand for more diverse avenues of storytelling, or at least the appearance of diversity, all pitched into the desensitizing blur of streaming.
Film, television, something new? Or else, just streaming. The Underground Railroad fills these buckets and overspills them. Its component parts are set out for appreciation on their own merits, and they are occasionally framed in ways that exceed the series’s 10-episode structure. Nicholas Britell’s score, for instance, can be streamed in three volumes, and is its own kind of sprawling: epic, haunting, and romantic. The assortment of architectures and textiles announce themselves as much as they do the specificity of each evolution in setting and period. The spectrum of colors across chapters, pitched to emulate of classic film stocks, references such photographers as Gordon Parks, Erwin Olaf, and Jacques Henri Lartigue. Jenkins’s organic tableaux have been uploaded to Vimeo independently in a work called simply “The Gaze.” These are improvisational moments of filmmaking, given space to breathe outside the boundaries of the show. Jenkins’s is a filmmaking practice that comes alive as something other than a unified final product. These outflows are invitations to keep thinking with the show’s provocations, not least of which radiate from obtrusive bursts of light.
The Underground Railroad revels in the lens flare. One of cinema’s most widely adopted mistakes, the flare as we know it is an inheritance traced to cinematographers of the late 1960s who valued realism and mobility over propriety. They rebelled against old rules of lighting that said that actors and landscapes should be shot a certain way and that lighting should remain out of sight, which was really a way of naturalizing certain looks and ways of looking. The flares in The Underground Railroad are not mere artifacts, pulled and suspended across the screen. And not flourishes, but the visual signature of a strategy that makes light a central figure on screen. Throughout the series, cinematographer James Laxton and his crew harness the flames of illumination and grow them wild: brilliant orbs cover the frame, brightening the ground past legibility, consuming faces and cutting figures into dazzling silhouettes.
In the first chapter — and they are called chapters, not episodes, after all — flares radiate and absorb the frame. They are the sun’s force in the potent stillness after Cora gives Caesar the brush-off, shine descending over Big Anthony, who crowns a young boy in a straw hat before his ill-fated escape attempt, the pall of death in the sky as James Randall, the scraggly slaveowner, collapses. Through lucent windows, Cora is a delicate shadow when the slavecatcher Ridgeway stares into her, feeling her anger but missing its source. Light catches in the intensity of Big Anthony’s suffering, enshrouding the frame in sickly hues. Finally, the train’s avant-garde, what Cora walks into, a path in darkness.
Illumination, then, is meticulously brought to account. Sources are always close at hand. Not an arrival but a matter of degree; a luminescence that had always been here but now rebels. It is prompting us to acknowledge it, to chase it, to see if we can see visibilities, which are not reducible to the visible. The peril lies in confusing visibility with a characteristic, something that belongs to objects or that light reveals. “How might light be illuminated?” asks Eugenie Brinkema. Light refuses to reflect, to show up. If light is to be illuminated, it must be found in its effects, in the force it exerts and the traces it leaves. Here, light acts — impresses — on the screen, making self-evident its non-neutrality.
Despite the mass democratization of image-making in the 21st century, a certain kind of well-funded spotlight holds up as the meaningful stage where power unveils itself. We can’t seem to get away from a version of visibility that is, in Rey Chow’s words, “implicitly analogized to power, hegemony, status, and authority […] as something desirable.” The rabid production and circulation of images, that is incomprehensible, even for us living in it, except as intensity, has not dulled the demands for representation but accelerated them. When she stars in a museum exhibit Whitehead’s text names “Typical Day on the Plantation,” surrounded by the curious, burrowing eyes, Cora learns visibility as a state of confinement. The edges of light, and enlightenment, as in the “luminous environment” of the panopticon, cut both ways, so that visibility is not emancipation but entrapment: “precisely as it enables one to be seen, it also enables one to be caught.”
What I’ve described as the show’s interruptions of luminosity are extra-narrative touches, pressure points at the extreme of visuality. They might tell us something about the sun’s force or the opacity of characterization, a visual touch that cannot be assigned to a cinematic or televisual gaze, a kind of anti-representational swerve, perhaps. Backlit against a window, Cora is something less and more than a subject. Where Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad pushes against the rote imaging of Whitehead’s descriptions, beyond adaptation as analogy, where language and visibility fully diverge, is where the show is most free as a piece of media. In aggregate, the interruptions make light as force visible, against which we might see where light hides, whether illumination captures more than it frees.
In North Carolina, Cora’s captivity in an attic restages one of the central images from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs in which the narrator tells of seven years spent in a crawlspace evading her pursuer. Jonathan Beller reads Jacobs’s scene of captivity as a model for the camera obscura that reveals an originary imbrication between photography and chattel slavery. Like Cora and her attic companion, Grace, Jacobs observes the world through a peephole. She watches her children grow up without being able to touch them or even alert them to her presence. This “being in camera” enacts the double-sidedness of a scopic regime that, in Beller’s terms, violently reduces Jacobs to a nearly “pure observer” on one side and “pure object” on the other. After hiding in plain sight in South Carolina, encountering its racist experiments and restagings of the cotton field, visibility means something different in North Carolina. The attic, like the underground, is an in-between place, as Marquis Bey writes, a place for fugitivity, and a space for seeing in the dark. Light becomes apparent, can be reexamined from the attic, but it is also a space of deprivation that takes its cost out on Cora’s body. Visibility means capture and death, but the other side of looking is no less constricting.
Cora and Grace are rendered observers, and they are drawn by the texture of light. A beam enters their crawlspace, recalling the cone of a film projector or an arm of light reaching down an underground railroad station. Grace plays with the light, flitting her hands through the beam, feeling it between her fingers. The embodied proto-camera of the crawlspace presages the next evolution in regimes of looking. Fred Moten, in Black and Blur, draws our attention to the arrival of the aural and temporal in Jacobs’s descriptions of a vision she has in a particular beam of moonlight. At the interplay of music and light, Moten writes, Jacobs is “on the way to cinema.” Cinema’s too-early arrival in a state where Black people’s very existence has been outlawed supplies a model of visibility intimately recognizable, one that has not been outwitted by the reiterating technologies of imaging, one that demands Black people’s invisibility and feeds on their hypervisibility. And while Jacobs rides the “lawless freedom of imagination” from her crawlspace, conjuring a vision of her children whom she “has and cannot have, sees and cannot see,” Cora and Grace see another display: a Black woman executed ritualistically by a community that does not admit the presence of Black people.
From within the problematic of visibility, screen depictions of chattel slavery are not merely vehicles of truth, and truth proportionate to the ferocity of their violence, but must circulate to intensify their empathic force. Like viral videos of anti-Black violence, they must be seen and felt to be believed. It is especially the unrepresentable horror of enslavement that sheds light on the consuming empathy of witnesses, spectators, and gawkers who demand the crimes of slavery be put on display, that make lustrous spectacles concealing the “quotidian routines of slavery.” It is not just that “empathetic identification,” as Saidiya Hartman puts it, obscures Black suffering in its efforts to illuminate it, but that the illumination is a projection into the captive body, making it a vessel and clouding the “materiality of suffering.” The Underground Railroad does not resist the temptation to locate truth-telling in the violence it spotlights, but the perverse inversions of empathy lead us back to a notion of visibility that is incompatible with the figures it makes appear. In “Georgia,” Big Anthony’s pained body is brought close and made to speak: his torture and execution become a narrative trigger, finally pushing Cora to accept Caesar’s plans for flight. Later, his body is sight for the spectacular, forcing itself back on screen through Cora’s trauma response. His pain is kept brutally in frame, but Anthony no longer appears. The particularities of the violence done to him reverberate throughout the series in the scorched landscapes of Tennessee, and in bursts of light that overpower the frame — an illumination that obscures what it brings into view.
Light’s movement across media has refracted and crystallized ways of looking, and privileged the visible, but in the screen it has found a luminous platform for its flat dominance. What visibility accomplishes in the proliferation of images on streaming and social media is accelerated circulation. A light for its own self. Tracking illumination and its interruptions across The Underground Railroad provides an opening to see light’s effects in the extreme; aimed into the frame of slavery’s unrepresentable representation, light exposes its blanketing force and provides an opening to peer into the mechanical conditions that make visibility possible, and the material conditions it must obscure.
Jorge Cotte is a writer living in Chicago. His work has appeared in The New Inquiry, Complex, and Remezcla.
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