For even the sturdiest of souls, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a difficult watch. As a great admirer of Jenkins’ work (Moonlight is my favorite movie of the 21st century), I thought I knew what I would be getting into when I sat down to watch The Underground Railroad. I was wrong. I barely made it through the first episode, but not because I didn’t think it was good. On the contrary, I thought it might be too good. I felt shattered while watching Big Anthony burn alive. Just when it appeared that the scene might mercifully come to an end, Jenkins hits upon a horrifying masterstroke as he turns the POV from the spectators’ and shows the sequence from Big Anthony’s perspective. I don’t mind telling you that I’m not sure I will ever get over it.
As traumatizing as that scene was, it’s important to note how Big Anthony ended up hanging from chains, being lashed, and then set alight. Big Anthony was returned to his “master” to be made an example of by a runaway slave catcher named Ridgeway, played by the fine actor, Joel Edgerton. I’ve admired Edgerton’s work for a long time—he first hit my radar with his fine performance in the great Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom in 2010. His work on that film launched him into a number of high profile films (some of my favorites include Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty, The Gift—which he also directed—and Loving). While Edgerton has been terrific in so many projects as his career has been on the ascent, nothing he has done prepared me for Ridgeway—a man so consumed by evil that he all but carries it around on his back like a rotting corpse. He might hate the stench, but he needs it. He needs that foul odor to keep him grim, to keep him cold, to remain driven.
Oddly, the closest thing to affection we see in him is directed towards a young black boy named Homer (played by Chase Dillon in perhaps the most disturbing child performance I have ever seen), who is his dedicated traveling companion. There is something particularly disturbing about how devoted Homer is to what amounts to his owner. Perhaps even more strangely, Ridgeway seems to need Homer. We can imagine, through Ridgeway’s eyes, that he might think his relationship with Homer humanizes him, Ridgeway, the slave catcher. But in fact, for all the horror Ridgeway is responsible for, his corruption of the young Homer is perhaps the worst. He has taken this little boy—who in almost any other circumstance he would treat no better than Big Anthony—and made him into his living doll. Homer is completely faithful to Ridgeway. He obeys Ridgeway’s every command and parrots his words upon request.
At no point is this behavior more chilling than during Ridgeway’s “manifest destiny” speech in episode six. He turns to Homer—who he has placed at an adjacent table by himself due to his “poor manners”—and calls out the words “Manifest Destiny!”
On cue, Homer replies:
“Taking what is rightfully yours, your property. Whatever you deem it to be, sir.”
Then Ridgeway turns to the recently captured Cora, as the two sit over a saloon table, and explains the need to “lift up, subjugate, or exterminate” the “lesser races.” A theory he calls “the American imperative.” Ridgeway goes on to explain how the Red man, the African, and the Mexican are “giving of themselves so that we can have what is rightfully ours.”
These words are heard once again in episode nine, as the fallen Ridgeway has Homer take down his final words as he lays dying by the Underground Railroad. With his last remaining breaths, he seeks to perfect his monologue on Manifest Destiny and the American Imperative. He beseeches Homer to write these words as if they are the last testament from a great man. And Homer does.
After Cora returns, and, by bullet, puts Ridgeway out of his (and our) misery, Homer is left there to cry over and clutch at the chest of this villainous man whose single-mindedness is not steeped in greatness, but rather in a dull, blunt evil. What makes Edgerton’s performance in The Underground Railroad so remarkable is how completely colorless it is. In another production, an actor in this role might have decided to chew up the scenery—to entertain. Ridgeway is not entertainment. He is as real and as grave as the death he brings wherever he goes. The only legacy he might leave behind is that of Homer: a boy who was not born, but was made, a traitor to his own race.
But perhaps Ridgeway will have no legacy at all—it’s entirely possible that Homer will die of starvation before leaving this horrid, hollow man’s corpse. Ridgeway may think that he “civilized” Homer. He may think he “lifted him up.” But of course, he didn’t. He subjugated him in a way that only the worst kind of adult can do to a child—by destroying the person that boy could have been. So much so, that the child might suffer his own extinction rather than climb up the ladder from the underground railroad back into the light.
There is no magic in Edgerton’s performance, but there is enormous skill. The depth of Edgerton’s reach is extraordinary. Were I to ever speak with him, I would ask him how he found this man within him. How was he able to access such a barren place inside himself to draw from? I would want to know how he slept at night while playing Ridgeway.
Every word in the preceding paragraph, I mean as a compliment to Edgerton. Because, as Ridgeway, he lays America’s original sin bare—and as awful as that is to see and feel, it is completely necessary to the performance, to the series, and to everyone who views it. In his blank eyes and near-expressionless face, we understand not only the vile nature of racism, but the utter fallacy of “white supremacy.”
What a staggering achievement.
Joel Edgerton contends for an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie.