Eventually Cora flees the plantation with her friend Caesar (Aaron Pierre). He is one of many characters displaying the range of attitudes among the enslaved, saying, “I won’t be bred like cattle”. Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton, in another of his quietly intense performances) is determined to find Cora because he has failed to capture her mother, who disappeared from the plantation when Cora was a girl, an abandonment that left her so haunted and angry she dreams of slashing her mother’s throat with a knife.
Reading about a literal underground railroad is one thing, but seeing it on screen takes the metaphor one step closer to reality. Jenkins finds a balance by making the railroad physically believable yet at times fantastical. One of the stations is no more than a dark tunnel and a handcar. But in a dream, Cora enters a large, gleaming station brimming with people, where uniformed staff wait behind a ticket counter.
Her first stop off the railroad is a bright, urbane town in South Carolina, where a group of white people educate and sponsor the futures of black people. Cora wears a tailored yellow dress and hat, takes lessons in a classroom and waltzes with Caesar under glowing lanterns at a dance in the town square. But she also works in a museum that stages scenes of slave life. On display behind glass, she performs the role she recently lived, picking cotton. The town, with its intentionally anachronistic skyscrapers, may seem to point to a better future, but that beneficent world is not what it appears.
Every one of Cora’s steps toward freedom leads to a cruel reversal, and Mbedu fiercely reveals her increasing determination to keep moving toward the future. Jenkins’s imagery reflects both the world around Cora and her state of mind, as she travels through a scorched landscape in Tennessee on to a lush green farm in Indiana. Like the landscape, the fantastical elements reflect her hopes and fears. She tumbles down a hole, floating like Alice In Wonderland, only to arrive in a dank, dirt-floored tunnel. Among the more effective poetic touches, Jenkins frequently shows characters standing still before the camera, looking at us. Many are dead but they are not translucent ghostly images. They are physical presences, alive with significance, even if they are no longer living in Cora’s world.