Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

blogging, book blogger, book blogging, books, fantasy, fucking beautiful, fucking tragic, history, must read, reviews, slavery

Underground Railroad

5_star_rating_system_4_stars1

Anyone paying attention to my weekly reading rundowns of late will know that October and November weren’t exactly stellar reading months. I can’t even remember when I started The Underground Railroad but it was at least the beginning of October. I only finished it last week. Admittedly, I took a quick beak in between so I could read And Then There Were None but still. It took me fucking ages. Not because I didn’t enjoy the book but because I’m such a terrible reader. It’s been a couple of months of work madness and illness. The kind of nights when I’d settle down to read only for my eyes to immediately start to droop. I genuinely never thought I was going to get through it. But I persevered. I mean I had to. This was ‘THE’ book of 2016 and we’re nearing the end of 2017. I couldn’t leave it any longer. Although, having still not read loads of my most anticipated reads of the last 2 years, I could have guessed it was going to be a struggle. One day I’ll learn how real book bloggers do it and get through multiple books a week. Though, I suspect to do that I’d have to give up work. Although, after the day I’ve had, I wouldn’t be dead against that idea.

I’ve not read anything by Colson Whitehead before so I wasn’t really sure what to expect here. I mean I’d heard nothing but amazing things from it and it was near the top of basically every best books list of 2016. Plus, any book that was endorsed by Barack Obama is probably going to be worth checking out, right? It also sounded really amazing; a strange mix of history and fantasy/science fiction that is based on the abolition of slavery. Surely if there was any book that was going to grab someone’s attention then it’s that. Whitehead takes the narrative that we all know and gives it a new spin. The underground railroad was, as we all know, a metaphor for the network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape their captivity. In The Underground Railroad that concept becomes a fully-fledged network of rail tracks that span for miles deep underground. It is both a simple and brilliant idea that manages to bring a sense of wonder and magic to such a harrowing subject.

We are taken on our underground journey along with slave Cora who is encouraged to escape from her vicious owner by a fellow slave, Caesar. The pair find themselves running for their lives and placing their safety in the hands of strangers. After a tense wait, they are quickly ferried away in a rickety old boxcar to start their new lives. The train leaves intermittently so any fleeing slaves are forced to wait and see what their future holds. As they travel between new communities and try to forget the past, the pair are being pursued by a ruthless slave catcher, Ridgeway, who has a personal vendetta with Cora. Or, at least, her mother. Years earlier Cora was abandoned when her mother, Mabel, escaped from the same plantation. Ridgeway was unable to track her down and it is a failure that has haunted him ever since. He vows to make amends by capturing her daughter and returning her to her rightful owner. There is an unending sense of doom throughout this novel even as Cora steams ahead on her journey. It always seems highly unlikely that she will ever be free.

Despite how long it took me, The Underground Railroad was a fantastic read. Whitehead’s prose is beautiful and his descriptions of the railroad itself are spectacular. He has a rare ability to mix fact with fiction without ever ruining the sense of realism. You know there is a lot of artistic license at play here but there is such a strong undercurrent of fact that it always feels possible. The novel isn’t so much of an exploration of slavery and American history as it is a way to recapture the history of slavery. One of the key ideas within the novel is how people remember certain events or, in most cases, remember incorrectly. The topic of black history is so often taken over by white people. It is their description of events that make up the foundation of the past. Whitehead is taking back the history of the black American struggle not by faithfully reconstructing it but by representing it incorrectly. And it is all the more effective and memorable.

My only issue, if I had to admit to one, isn’t actually one to do with the novel itself. I’ve read a lot of reviews praising Colson Whitehead for not holding back. As one review describes he “opens his eyes where the rest of us would look away”. I guess he does but I can’t say that I really found the things he was saying that different to any other slave narratives; I mean aside from the fantastical elements. The novel does a great job of highlighting the plight of the slave and the danger of escaping the clutches of an evil plantation owner. However, it isn’t breaking new ground. Whilst I was studying for my Postgraduate degree I did a module on empire and race in the Romantic period so I had to read a fair few first hand accounts of people who were kidnapped and sold as slaves. The Underground Railroad is, for the most part, just another account like this but, really, less realistic. A lot of people I’ve seen on Instagram have said this was a difficult read because it was so harrowing: I have to disagree. I think, for the most part, the violence is underplayed or glossed over.

I’m not saying it’s a bad novel or not worth reading but I can’t agree with the people who believe it is breaking down boundaries. It’s not the happiest read but it’s also not the most gratuitous. Not that I’d want it to be torture porn or anything. It handles the conditions of slavery with a deft hand and that’s a good thing. However, it is in no way a comparison to the real-life accounts you could read. What Whitehead does it open a dialogue about slavery and the the reaction to race in the modern world. His themes are all very relevant today and throughout history. You can see it in the way he alludes to classic literature and modern events. He uses the backdrop of slavery and one young woman’s situation to show us a deeper truth. But it’s not a truth about slavery. That’s been available to see for years… just not written inside a novel.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, emotional wreck, Michael Fassbender, review, slavery, violence

We will constantly be told that 12 Years a Slave is groundbreaking and necessary filmmaking and it is true. A year after Quentin Tarantino placed the slave trade under his unique spotlight, Steve McQueen takes a more sombre look at that bleak part of American history. Comparisons can and will be made to Tarantino’s revenge Western but, aside from the theme that unites them, there is little to be drawn from such an association. Tarantino locks his slaves inside a cartoonish world where the damaged Django is able to gain some sort of catharsis through his violence. Steve McQueen makes this film knowing that there can be no easy answers. Whilst you could easily walk away from Django Unchained feeling that some form of justice has been served, there is nothing to shield you from the horrible truth in McQueen’s third film. Rather than revenge, we are being served up the unpalatable truth. 


12 Years is the adaptation of the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man who lives with his wife and children in New York. Thanks to his unquestionably trusting nature, Solomon is tricked, drugged and kidnapped in Washington and sold into slavery. We follow Solomon’s journey from the capital to the plantations of Louisiana where he is passed from the hands of a money-hungry trader (a despicable Paul Giamatti) to the benevolent but weak Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and, finally, the malicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Solomon is stripped of his freedom, dignity and his name, having been giving the moniker Platt. He must hide his past, keep his head down and do everything that his masters expect of him.

Solomon is played by the hugely talented Chiwetel Ejiofor. There is a stark and uncomfortable contrast between the Solomon we see in the opening scenes and the man we see bound and helpless. The free man walks confidently around his home town and happily interacts with his neighbours. Then we suddenly see him chained up in a dark and dank cell before he is violently beaten by his captors.  It is a horrifying change.The violence and language of McQueen’s epic are intended to make its audience uncomfortable but it is presented in such a way that it affects on a deeper level. You are not seeing images that are simply shocking and disgusting but something that is barbaric and illogical. McQueen doesn’t have to do a lot here and just lets the narrative speak for itself. Through McQueen’s lens, slavery is seen in uncompromising brutality.
12 Years treats us to the typical McQueen style of precise framing and shots held onto just long enough to make you uncomfortable: the unflinching gaze. It is on Ford’s plantation that Solomon is given some respect but the caring owner does not control his staff quite as well as he should. The diabolical overseer (Paul Dano) takes a disliking to Platt and goads the slave into standing up for himself. In response, Solomon is hung from a tree with his feet barely touching the ground and gasping for breath. His fellow slaves go about their business behind him but the audience is held face-to-face with the violence for much longer than they’d like.
Then we have the harrowing scene towards the end of the film where the downtrodden Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), already having been subjected to Epps’ uncontrolled lust and sexual assault, is savagely beaten. As Solomon is forced to dole out this punishment, the camera circles the scene showing the horrifying effect this has on both Patsy and Solomon.
McQueen focuses a great deal on Solomon’s face, which places an enormous amount of pressure on
Ejiofor. His face, and most importantly his eyes, becomes the emotional centre of the film: carefully conveying every necessary emotion. You never see Northup admitting defeat and, through every awful encounter, Ejiofor lets a hint of determination shine through. This is acting of the greatest quality and Ejiofor deserves every award and nomination he’s been given.
Alongside him are equally Oscar-worthy performances that ensure the drama on screen never feels melodramatic or mawkish. Nyong’o, in her film debut, is spectacular but harrowing and plays Patsey with a fiery tenacity. It is a breathtaking start to her career and I am still outraged that she missed out on the BAFTA she so obviously deserved.
Though the most memorable performance, by far, comes from Michael Fassbender as the savage Epps. Epps starts off as potentially cartoony: a drunk and sadistic man who delights in breaking his slaves and terrorising them with fake bible verses. However, he is given extra depth through his obsession with Patsey and his strained relationship with his wife. He is an utterly terrifying presence who, despite being only a second away from violence, is far more dangerous. Fassbender provides us with a disturbing and awful portrayal of a slave owner who has become just an inhuman as the people he owns.
12 Years is a film that unpicks the intricacies of American slavery – the power-relationships, the daily horrors and the overlooked practices – and shows it to be nothing more than madness. This is an angry, intense and stylish examination of the slave trade that is meant to challenge the audience (I for one was an emotional wreck by the time the credits rolled) and one that will stay with you long after it ends.

McQueen doesn’t hide the realities that were faced by many behind witty word-play, suggestions of great change, or violent revenge narratives. He offers a painful, emotional and unrelenting view of what thousands of people faced less than 200 years ago. There is no happy ending here: just the haunting image of a broken man. Forcing you to face up to the corporeal realities of slavery, 12 Yearsis set to become a modern classic that goes to show just how powerful cinema can be.

Django Unchained (2012)

Christoph Waltz, cowboy, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, review, slavery, violence, Wild West

There is no way anyone with a deep knowledge of film can ignore the influences that have prepared the director for his latest work and there are plenty of sneaky in jokes for them to pick up on. The film would comfortably sit within the history of blaxploitation cinema (with links to films like 1975’s Mandigo amongst others) and, no matter what Tarantino tries to tell us with his talk of “Southerns”, there is little to suggest that Django Unchained would be uncomfortable within the world of Spaghetti Westerns. From the opening credits using the old Columbia logo to the blood-red titles and the whip zooms, the whole thing screams Western. There is an obvious homage to the 1966 film Django thanks to the use of the theme song over the opening titles and a brief cameo by the original Django’s Franco Nero. The final credits of the film utilises music from another influence They Call Me Trinity from 1970. The two films have dramatically different tones with Django being a gruesomely violent melodrama whilst Trinity is a more comic affair where the hero prefers to forgo violence for cheekiness. These two pieces of music sum up the slightly bipolar tone of Tarantino’s latest historical epic. We are treated to an outrageously violent, gruesome Western/blaxploitation hybrid alongside a keen sense of comedy and fun. Although, is this kind of duality the correct setting for a film dealing with such a controversial and risqué topic?

Django Unchainedopens to find our hero, scarred but not yet broken, chained to his fellow slaves before a life changing encounter with German born bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). In need of Django’s help to track down three of his targets, the eloquent stranger offers him the chance to be free. Luckily the recently released slave proves to be a natural at this killing for money malarkey and they go into business together. Years in captivity don’t really seem like the usual training ground for a gifted assassin but Django could easily be up there with the best bounty hunters; standing as an equal alongside Rick Deckard, Boba Fett and Dog. The films first act, following Django and Schultz chasing bounties across the snow covered mountains and plains of Tennessee is incredibly enjoyable and, though not all of it is relevant, is full of genuinely funny moments. Their brief encounter with an inept band of the KKK is pure Mel Brooks.

It is during his winter as a professional killer that Schultz discovers his companion is married to fellow slave, Broomhilda (a mishearing of the German Brünnhilde by her ignorant subsequent captors). The pair was separated as part of a cruel punishment after an escape attempt so, with the help of his new friend, Django vows to free his love (Kerry Washington). This takes them into Texas to Candyland, the plantation owned by the despicable Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where slaves are forced to fight to the death for their owner’s amusement and punishments include being torn apart by dogs. Not that it were really necessary but the audience are given a sneak peek into the future narrative thanks to Schultz’s retelling of the old German myth of Brünnhilde and Siegfried. It becomes clear that Django must become a real-life Siegfried and slay the dragon that holds his wife captive.
Jamie Foxx gives a great performance as our hero and fits the part perfectly. He has all the needed swagger and cockiness that is necessary for the leading man in a good Western. He takes to the role of the avenger cowboy with ease and he looks every bit as heroic and deadly as any cowboy thanks to his cool leather costume and shades. He has the swagger and the bravado but he has the all-important heart and just cause that even his more inhumane actions seem acceptable. However, he is surrounded by much better characters so he often seems like something of a bit-player in his own story. Foxx plays Django deadpan which often jars with his more laidback cohort. His is a very serious story sure but he often comes across as too serious and straight that he gets lost.
For it is his companion that demands much of our attention for the first half of the film as Christoph Waltz is simply incredible as Schultz. He shares director Quentin Tarantino’s love of long, flowing dialogue and he delivers his beautifully formed speeches with ease and a certain amount of glee. It is here that we see an obvious separation from traditional Westerns, which put the focus on action above words. Whilst Clint Eastwood went through the script to A Fistful of Dollars removing dialogue, you can easily believe Tarantino went through his adding more in. As you would expect there is a shedload of extreme violence in Django but it is with words that the real conflicts are fought. The key showdowns between our two heroes and their villainous counterparts only go to highlight their immeasurable skill to offer up a fantastic speech. It is words that are important here and notably the vast majority of the white Americans portrayed here are dim-witted and inarticulate.
Well, all but the disturbing and seemingly charming Calvin Candie who portrays himself as the perfect Southern Dandy whilst he simultaneously forces his slaves to fight to the death. DiCaprio really lets go as Candie and sinks to the utter depths of depravity and villainy. It’s spectacular and wouldn’t have worked had he been too afraid to go that far. Candie is one of Django’s greatest pleasures. He is the childish dictator controlling his vast empire when he’s not having a tantrum because someone failed to call him Monsieur. He is portrayed perfectly and goes to highlight that DiCaprio is only getting better. Candie has the sugary sweet outer layer of Southern charm and civility to hide his dark and poisonous centre. Whenever he is on screen there is a very real threat of violence. The dinner table scene that takes place at Candyland is all the evidence you need to show just how volatile this Southern dandy is. It’s a fantastic scene made all the more impressive thanks to DiCaprio’s injury during filming.
However, as awful as Candie is he probably isn’t even the main villain of the piece. Alongside him is his faithful servant Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), an awful Uncle Tom figure who limps after Candie like the slave owner’s own evil Igor. Jackson plays this role in a way that you can accept no other actor could pull off. Stephen appears as the world-worn, white-haired and limping old slave but there is little doubt how much power he holds. Stephen knows how to work the system. He has the brains and the anger to keep all of Candyland in check. Interestingly, it is only Stephen who is able to see beyond Schultz’s artistry with words that provides a mask to his true identity. Whilst his counterpart Django prefers to shoot first and ask questions later, Stephen prefers to see people slowly suffer whilst letting other people carry out his dirty work. Samuel L Jackson does a wonderful job and, along with Waltz and DiCaprio, easily takes focus away from our more reserved hero who often falls into the background.
But what a background it is. Thanks to the work of cinematographer Robert Richardson, who was last seen winning the Oscar for his work on Hugo (a film so beautiful I cried because of the opening shot – FACT!), Django Unchained is an absolutely stunning film. With some amazing shots of picturesque mountains and Southern plains this films is constantly offering a treat for your eyes. These visuals play alongside Tarantino’s use of cinematic clichés like crazy zooms and grainy flashbacks to ensure the end results are incredibly stylish and fresh.
Django Unchainedis Tarantino’s first film since the death of Sally Menke his long-time collaborator which could explain its ever so slightly rough finish. The slave’s road to retribution is a long one with the running time reaching 168 minutes and it doesn’t quite have the overall polish that Inglorious Basterds did. There are a few plot strands and cameo appearances that don’t really go anywhere. (I’m mostly thinking of the mystery behind the woman with the red bandana. What was that about?) Don’t get my wrong, it is fantastic to listen to characters lose themselves in lavish runaway speeches but it does drag everything out a fair bit, especially when it has the tendency to repeat itself. Whilst I did not necessarily find the film lagging a great deal I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been sharper and more refined.
Still I’m not really complaining. I thoroughly enjoyed Django and was kept engrossed in the narrative for the entire 2 hours 45 minute running time. In fact, my only real criticism was the director’s misjudged cameo towards the end of the film. There has been much debate about the use of violence in the film. Of course violence is a major focus for the narrative but it is played out in such an over-the-top way that it simply feels cartoonish. Django’s quest for revenge results in much death and bloodshed but it is so ridiculously unrealistic (it’s the sort of violence that you see in GTA where you shoot a man in the head and it explodes) that it simply adds to the comic effect and the reference to old fashioned Westerns. It’s all relative and in keeping with Tarantino’s main aim. I think it works.
As for the suitability question, I’m not sure. I think there is a sense that the two tones of the film (comic and dramatic) don’t play well with such a big topic. Placing such horrific and realistic acts of violence towards slaves alongside the indulgent and silly deaths of everyone who crosses Django’s path maybe doesn’t sit well. However, Tarantino isn’t attempting to give us a thought-provoking new insight into slavery in America. Instead he has gone back to that time and, in his typical bloody and brash style, has decided to show it what he thinks of it. And perhaps that is exactly how the issue of slavery should be dealt with in Hollywood. What better way to show the absurdity and horror of slavery than placing it in a loud, extremely bloody, self-indulgent and completely ridiculous narrative? We all know that slavery is bad at this point so why allow it to have any more credence by dealing with it in a sophisticated and reserved manner? Let’s just shoot all the bad guys, throw fake blood over everything and blow shit up. This isn’t Taranino’s well thought out argument against slavery. This is him saying ‘slavery sucks so let’s have some fun at its expense’. And fun, dear reader, I did have.