Amazon Prime just released a 10-episode limited series adaptation of The Underground Railroad, bringing the tragic tale to life with a brilliant cast of new and familiar faces. Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad took the metaphorical Underground Railroad moniker to the literal sense in a young girl’s search for freedom as she escapes plantations and foes in the antebellum South. The series adaptation is directed by Barry Jenkins, known for directing the Best Picture-winning film Moonlight in 2016 and critically acclaimed If Beale Street Could Talk in 2018.
The Underground Railroad follows Cora Randall, a young enslaved Black person in the 1800s who escapes a Georgia plantation with newly arrived Caesar. She finds that the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor; abolitionists and free Black people use an actual train on a secret railroad underneath Southern ground to lead enslaved people to freedom. After Cora’s escape, she becomes the target of a search party all over the South by slave catcher Ridgeway.
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The new series isn’t for the weak-hearted, it’s a reckoning of America with the Black experience as it has evolved from the plantation and slave-owning white supremacy to systemic racism and the trauma white Americans continue to impose on Black Americans. As Cora navigates the South on her journey to the North, Jenkins informs the audiences that as much as white people tried to preach as much, Reconstruction offered no true freedom for Black Americans. Coming from a Black director who has produced several films on the subject of the Black experience, The Underground Railroad won’t be another white-telling of Black pain like Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The series’ success isn’t simply escalated by Jenkins’ adapted screenplay and directing, but also by the intense performances from the cast.
Thuso Mbedu as Cora Randall
The series’ protagonist Cora Randall is portrayed by South African actress Thuso Mbedu. Cora begins as a young woman left on a Georgia plantation after her mother, Mabel, escaped from the Randall Plantation without her. Newly arrived slave, Caesar, befriends Cora and devises a plan for the two to escape through the literal Underground Railroad. Cora hides in North Carolina until slave catcher Ridgway finds her, bringing her with him to Tennessee. A group of Underground Railroad operatives rescue Cora and bring her to a free Black farm in Indiana.
While The Underground Railroad is her big breakout into American television and audiences, Mbedu has received critical acclaim, including an Emmy Award, for her performances in South African soap operas and television series like Is’Thunzi, Scandal!, and Mail & Guardian. Following The Underground Railroad, Mbedu is slated to star alongside Viola Davis in the upcoming historical drama The Woman King from the director of Love & Basketball.
Chase W. Dillon as Homer
Homer is portrayed by young actor Chase W. Dillion, known for The First Wives Club (2019) and That Damn Michael Che. Homer is a peculiar boy, a former slave who was set free by slave catcher Ridgeway, though stays at Ridgeway’s side and seems to be unbothered by his boss’s racism and cruel actions to those of his race. Homer typically wears a suit and hat, assisting Ridgeway in capturing and transporting runaway slaves.
Aaron Pierre as Caesar
Caesar arrives as a new slave at the Randall Plantation and becomes Cora’s companion in escaping through the Underground Railroad, initially devising the plan for the duo’s escape. Caesar was taught to read and write as well as promised freedom by his former master, so searches for the free life that is rightfully owed to him. Caesar is played by Aaron Pierre who portrayed Dev-Em in the series Krypton and Antonius on Britannia.
Joel Edgerton as Ridgeway
Ridgeways is a notorious Southern slave catcher who is obsessed with capturing Cora after failing to find her escaped mother, Mabel, years earlier. Ridgeway is a white supremacist who upholds the racist ideals of slavery and segregation, and whose ruthlessness is feared by all who encounter him.
Ridgeway is portrayed by well-known Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who has starred in blockbuster films for the last 20-odd years in roles like Owen Lars in the Star Wars prequels, Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, and Falstaff in The King. Fred Hechinger of News of the World plays a young Ridgeway.
William Jackson Harper as Royal
Royal was born a free Black man who worked for the Underground Railroad in New York City until leaving for the free Black Valentine Farm in Indiana. Royal is one of the Railroad agents who rescues Cora from Ridgeway in Tennessee and the two begin a romance on the Valentine Farm. Royal is played by William Jackson Harper, best known as Chidi on The Good Place and Josh in Midsommar.
Damon Herriman as Martin Wells
Martin is the Underground Railroad agent in North Carolina who reluctantly hides Cora in his attic. He took over the agent role after his abolitionist father Donald died and works with the Underground Railroad with his cautious wife, Ethel. Damon Herriman has become a familiar face in Hollywood for his multiple portrayals of murderer and cult leader Charles Manson in Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Lily Rabe as Ethel Wells
American Horror Story actress Lily Rabe stars in The Underground Railroad as Ethel, wife of weary Underground Railroad agent Martin. She fears being caught and killed for assisting Cora but becomes dedicated to helping her after nursing Cora back to health when she falls ill.
Mychal-Bella Bowman as Grace. Grace is a young Black girl the Wells have been harboring in their attic for some time, becoming a roommate to Cora in the small space.
Lucius Baston as Prideful. Lucius Baston, previously starring in Lovecraft Country and Atlanta, plays Prideful, an overseer slave – also known as a “driver” – on the Randall Plantation.
Sheila Atim as Mabel. Sheila Atim is a renowned stage actress who recently played The Tooth Fairy in Netflix’s The Irregulars. Before The Underground Railroad, Atim was cast in the canceled Game of Thrones spinoff Bloodmoon. Mabel is Cora’s mother who at the beginning is believed to have abandoned her daughter after escaping the Randall Plantation without her.
Will Poulter as Sam
Will Poulter, well-known for his roles in Bandersnatch, We’re The Millers, and The Maze Runner, is featured in The Underground Railroad as the young abolitionist Sam. Cora and Caesar meet Sam as an Underground Railroad agent in South Carolina.
Peter de Jersey and Amber Gray as John and Gloria Valentine. John and Gloria Valentine run the free Black farm that Cora finally arrives at in Indiana. John is a light-skinned Black man who met and freed his wife Gloria when she was enslaved on a plantation. John and Gloria opened up their Indiana farm to free Black people, runaways, and activists. Peter de Jersey is best known for his long-time role on The Bill and Amber Gray is a critically acclaimed Broadway actress in the musical Hadestown.
Benjamin Walker as Terrence Randall. Benjamin Walker plays Terrence Randall, the cruel plantation owner who takes over the entire field after his brother dies. Terrence has a volatile temper and works with Ridgeway to recapture Cora and Caesar. Benjamin Walker previously starred in the titular role of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and as Erik Gelden in Netflix’s Jessica Jones.
Jim Klock as Tom Hardman. A local official in Indiana played by Jim Klock, who was featured in Green Book and Scream Queens.
Justice Leak as James Randall. Justice Leak is best known for portraying Harland Osbourne in The Great Debaters (2007) alongside Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. James inherited the northern side of his father’s plantation and is known for being less explosive than his brother. His death is the catalyst for Cora and Caesar’s escape in The Underground Railroad, as his brother’s takeover of the entire plantation leads to further specific abuse on Cora.
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