In Barry Jenkins' new show The Underground Railroad, a largely faithful adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name, the central deceit is a daring act of alternate history.
In real life, 'the underground railroad' refers to a covert network of abolitionists, teachers, activists, and others who would help African American people escape slavery. In Whitehead's novel and the series, however, the nomenclature is literal, referring to an actual underground railroad that becomes the slaves' channel of escape.
Towards the end of the first episode, there is a powerful scene where we hear one of the operators of the train tell Caesar and Cora (the most recent occupants of the train): "If you want to see what this nation's about, you got to ride the rails. Just look outside as you speed through, and you'll see the true face of America." A little earlier in the same scene, when Caesar asked the man who built the train, the answer was a similarly powerful piece of rhetoric: "Who do you think built anything in America?"
The Underground Railroad is a well-made, exquisitely shot work of alternate history. This is a subgenre that has, of late, been used by several Hollywood creators to tell African-American stories in particular. This is not surprising when you consider how these stories were systematically excluded from popular histories.
After the blockbuster success of Marvel's Black Panther (2018), we have seen several well-crafted alternate histories onscreen through Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods (2020), Damen Lindelof's miniseries Watchmen (2019), and more recently, the miniseries Lovecraft Country (2020), based on the Matt Ruff novel of the same name. In each film or show, real-life historical events or figures were either altered or assimilated within the fictional reality of the show, usually to great effect.
Where Black Panther succeeded so spectacularly " it became the highest-grossing solo superhero movie of all time, grossing over $1.3 billion at the box office " was in creating a believable, adaptable mythology around the fictional African state of Wakanda. We are told that Wakanda, the most powerful country in the world because of its advanced technology and weaponry, had taken a conscious decision to keep its power hidden from the rest of the world, in order to keep off predators keen to acquire vibranium, the strongest metal in the world and the bedrock of Wakandan power. For the world, Wakanda is just another impoverished African country.
Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther
As alternate histories go, this by itself was quite powerful. But where it got really interesting was how this story intersected with the fates of African-American people. As Eric Killmonger (Michael B Jordan in the performance of his career so far), who grew up in America, said more than once, why did the world's most powerful nation sit by and watch their cousins continue to suffer at the hands of white politicians and cops, generations after the last slave was freed in America? Or, for that matter, why should not Wakanda intervene and end the oppression of African-origin folks around the world?
This 'what if' approach to history also earned Black Panther some criticism, however. There were many critics who felt that Killmonger's motives felt more believable and rational than T'Challa/Black Panther's (Chadwick Boseman). Killmonger's eventual defeat at T'Challa's hands was read as recommending a kind of watered-down, 'both-sides' liberalism over revolution (even though T'Challa does reveal Wakanda's true nature to the world in the epilogue). If T'Challa's father had opened up Wakanda's resources to Africans across the globe decades ago, perhaps it is the real-world history of systemic racism that would have become "alt history."
It should also be pointed out here that on one level, the alt-history approach is hard-baked into the very idea of superhero comics. Captain America and Superman have both fought Adolf Hitler himself, and the entire Hydra storyline from Captain America seeks to present itself as the covert history of "how the world is really run" et cetera. Just like Forrest Gump, Marvel and DC superheroes have frequently found themselves in the middle of some of the most significant moments in American history.
The miniseries Watchmen, written as both an adaptation of and a sequel to the graphic novel of the same name (written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons), is even more daring in its approach towards alternate history. Remember, Zack Snyder's film adaptation of the same book began with a big reveal: that the Comedian had assassinated President John F Kennedy Jr on Robert Nixon's orders; Nixon goes on to win the election and then abolishes the two-term limit to be sworn in a third time.
Hooded Justice interrogated in Watchmen
In Damen Lindelof's miniseries, the sequence that wowed a lot of critics early on was the one depicting the real-life Tulsa Race Massacre " on 31 May and 1 June, 1921, white mobs used weapons given to them by city officials to target Black neighbourhoods and Black-owned businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The official death toll for this violence was 39 people, although various 21st-century investigations estimate anywhere between 75 and 300 casualties, with hundreds of others injured and/or hospitalised.
The pilot episode of Watchmen included a scene depicting the horror of that day in Tulsa. Later in the show, we are shown how the Ku Klux Klan survives through the decades in American government and law enforcement " and how the New Age versions of KKK owe their existence to that fateful day, indirectly. It is a satisfyingly butterfly effect usage of alt history, and it works for Watchmen.
The Tulsa Race Massacre also became a plot point in Episode 9 of Lovecraft Country, where the three main characters " Atticus "Tic" Freeman, his father Montrose Freeman, and Letitia "Leti" Lewis travel back in time using a "multiverse machine" (could there be a more appropriately named machine in an alternate history story?). The objective is to retrieve the mystical Book of Names from Leti's ancestor. Lovecraft County, as the name suggests, also had a different kind of historical record to 'fix' " the legacy of writer HP Lovecraft (1890-1936), the author of some of the most popular horror stories of all time, including the ones featuring the cosmic entity known as Cthulhu.
Lovecraft was astoundingly racist, going as far as to write a poem called 'On the Creation of N**ggers,' where he calls Black people "semi-human." On other occasions, he had also called for the extermination of New York's Chinatown residents. His stories are full of horrible things that happen when human beings mate with "monsters". The show is set in parts of Massachusetts often called 'Lovecraft Country' by fans of the writer's stories; small towns in the state that were often the setting for Lovecraft stories.
During an interview with the Seattle Review of Books, Matt Ruff (who wrote the novel Lovecraft Country) said, "One way to read the Cthulhu Mythos is this fictionalised version of the fragility of white supremacy and Lovecraft's fears about that, and his need to be on guard against miscegenation and race mixing and democracy and liberal ideas about all people being created equal."
Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods had a lively, accessible approach towards alt history " centering Black men at the heart of a war they did not always want to fight (remember Mohammad Ali's statements against the Vietnam War, the slogan "no Vietnamese ever called me a n**gger" et cetera), but were forced into anyway. Lee also used songs by Black artists from the 1950s and '60s, as though to reiterate the fact that this, too, was 'Americana.' And yet, Lee's alternate history approach could not quite include a compassionate, inclusive telling of the Vietnamese people's POV. The Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, in a searing New York Times piece, "(¦) while Lee means well, he also does not know what to do with the Vietnamese except resort to guilty liberal feelings about them. As a result, the Vietnamese appear as the tour guide, the sidekick, the 'whore,' the mixed-race child, the beggar, and the faceless enemy, all of whom play to American desires and fears."
In the second episode of The Underground Railroad, set in South Carolina, Jenkins sets the alternate history mode on overdrive. The town of Griffin, South Carolina is introduced as a kind of post-racial utopia, where Black people are treated with kindness and respect, offered a real education and resources to help freed slaves get back on their feet. However, by the end of the episode, it is revealed that the white people in Griffin get Black men and women addicted to drugs, culminating in eugenics-inspired sterilisation. This particular slice of alternate history works as an allegory for race-agnostic liberalism, the kind professed by white politicians who claim that they "do not see race."
It is a reminder of how powerful alternate histories can be in the hands of gifted storytellers.
The Underground Railroad is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
All images from Twitter.