The Spectator ● February 3, 2017
Arts and Entertainment Book Review of
“The Underground Railroad”
By SARAh kim
of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
By Benjamin Shapiro Back in December of 2015, “Star Wars” fans were abuzz with excitement from the release of the first new “Star Wars” movie in 10 years. Much of the fanbase was thrilled, and after watching “Star Wars: Episode VII,” (the second most recent “Star Wars” movie before “Rogue One”) everybody I talked to or discussed it with had only good things to say. I shared the same positive opinion. After watching it, I felt it was one of the best movies I had ever seen. It was action-packed, touching, and even a little romantic, like many of the classic “Star Wars” films were. The months gradually passed, and the year went on. The hype surrounding Episode VII gradually faded as people moved on to other things. Over time, I began to have a change in opinion about the movie. It seemed that the negativity from others who had realized the movie’s great flaws had quickly eroded my own positivity about the movie. Looking back at Episode VII, I found it was incredibly one-sided and linear. The characters, while they were played well, were cliché and lacked substance. They just seemed like copies of characters from the original trilogy. Rey, for example, our heroic female protagonist, reminded me far too much of Luke Skywalker— young, ambitious, fond of droids,
though it takes place in 1850, I’m allowed to rove in these different kind of modes and bring in a lot of different aspects of American history in a way that I couldn’t if I was . . . sticking to the facts.” While the railroad lends Whitehead a powerful literary tool, it simultaneously makes Cora’s escape less thrilling. The trip from one hidden station to another is almost too easy, too magical, the complete opposite of what a real trip on the historical underground railroad was like. Ridgeway, the terrifying slave catcher chasing her heels, is arguably the sole character keeping the plot suspenseful. Still, Cora’s realization of the inescapable nature of her chains is executed well. Even as the protagonist travels farther away from the plantation, she never feels truly free, with a powerful understanding that she is forever branded, not only by her master, but also by memories of the plantation and of her perilous escape. Cora’s only physical scar is from a blow to the temple by Randall’s cane, and she initially considers herself lucky that her skin was never burned with a puckering mark, as slaves on other plantations were. However, as Cora’s journey progresses through the border states, taking on a darker tone, she thinks, “But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without.” Cora’s thoughts affirm that Whitehead’s detailed descriptions of the barbarism are not gratuitous moments included for the sake of moving the plot; the detached, matter-of-fact manner in which the scenes are narrated suggest that the author himself is unwilling to look too closely into the horrific violence. On the plantation, Cora witnesses her master torturing a runaway slave. Randall’s visitors sip spiced rum as Big Anthony is
“doused with oil and roasted . . . spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in.” South Carolina, her first stop, is ostensibly a haven, where she is able to find work as a nanny and build a new life with a new name, Bessie Carpenter. However, she uncovers that the neighborhood of free blacks is unknowingly part of an insidious human experiment and that she had played a part. North Carolina is no better; as she rides into the town hidden in the wagon of the conductor, she sees streams of hanged black people swinging on branches, cruelly dubbed the “Freedom Trail” by the white denizens, who intend on completely exterminating the race in their state. Although the book’s graphic scenes are utterly unforgettable, the characters are not. At each step of Cora’s symbolic re-building of herself, new characters are introduced, and others fade into the background, but they all seem strangely indistinctive, contrary to what the author appears to be attempting by naming most of the chapters after a character: crafting individual stories that come together, not a chunk of history. Whitehead does the greatest injustice to Cora, who should have been better fleshed out: at the end of the 306 pages, we still lack a sense of what she stands for. Her emotions are rarely described. We know Cora is rather pessimistic, distrustful of religion and of what she thinks are meaningless prayers, but she also doesn’t trust herself or anyone else. In addition, the nature of Cora’s relationship with Caesar is ambiguous, and her small romantic fling in Indiana feels like a filler, lacking any real substance. This lack of character development takes a toll on the story.
Perhaps we only follow Cora because we are more attached to the freedom we want for her, rather than to her as a human, taking away from the reader’s investment into the characters and giving off the sense that the plot is lagging. Ultimately, however, the essence of the story and the questions it raises make it a rewarding, necessary read. Stories like these matter not just to African Americans, but to everyone, not only because of the frightening consequences slavery has on our country’s contemporary issues but also, on a more hypothetical note, because it could have been anyone at the whipping post. The book isn’t perfect, but Whitehead’s words skillfully encapsulate America’s rotten, embarrassing history that history textbooks gloss over: “The whites came to this land for a fresh start
and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they had denied others . . . Stolen bodies working stolen land.” It’s important to remember that living in this country should make us proud, but looking back at our mistakes is just as critical, because our country is branded, just as Cora and other slaves were. We can’t ever fully scrub off the repercussions of slavery, although we had thoroughly convinced ourselves that we could. It’s easy to separate the content of our personal bookshelves from current events, but maybe it’s our responsibility as the younger generation to occasionally close our romance novels and open a book describing what our ancestors have done wrong, in all its ugly details, and promise to do better.
Rachel Zhang / The Spectator
The unforeseen return of intense racial tensions in the United States, exacerbated by Trump’s hotly discussed presidential campaign and victory, invited impassioned disputes that often blew up into nothing but bitter namecalling. In the midst of these debates, a story emerged that revisited the roots of the race issue, prodding the human conscience more than any argument could. It soon garnered an incredible amount of critical acclaim. On the day of its publication, the book clinched a spot on Oprah’s Book Club for the month, and two months later, it nabbed the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction. “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead’s latest work of historical fiction, turns the metaphor of an underground railroad into a reality. Set in the antebellum South, Cora, a young teenage slave blooming into womanhood and discovering its burden, escapes from the infernal Randall cotton plantation in Georgia and her master’s chilling sexual eye with a fellow slave, Caesar, through the use of a secret underground circuitry of railroad tracks and trains. Constructed and manned by people of all skin colors sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, the underground railroad branches throughout the South to the North, taking Cora on a wild ride to freedom. Whitehead’s decision to use a literal railroad adds an element of magic realism to Cora’s story, allowing him to play around with fantasy grounded in truth throughout the book. “And so I bring in the Tuskegee experiments. I bring in [some] sort of Nazism and white supremacy,” the author explained in an interview at the BookExpo America in Chicago. “And even
“The Underground Railroad”: A Newfangled Re-Telling of the United States’ Tragic Sin
Rogue One: Return of the Franchise stuck on a desert planet, and without knowledge of who her real parents are. Poe Dameron, the hotshot resistance pilot, resembled Han Solo, perhaps with slightly better morals. As it turned out, this was sort of what Disney was going for—a new generation of the heroes we know and love from Episodes IVVI. Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, the production company behind “Star Wars,” said, “Rey is the new generation’s Luke Skywalker.” But perhaps copying them so exactly was going a bit too far. There’s a difference between reinventing a story for a new generation and copying that story outright. The plot, too, was a copy of the original storyline: an evil empire rises, led by a masked villain with a questionable past, and it threatens all life and freedom in the “Star Wars” galaxy. A good storyline, originally, but the creation of a whole new movie following the same storyline and having incredibly similar characters doesn’t seem very i m -
pressive to me. Did Disney simply make this new movie for profit, or did they have the entertainment of viewers in mind, too? “Episode VII” was cliché, lacked substance and, looking back on it, felt more of a corporate scheme to boost profits more than something genuinely designed to entertain viewers. To many people, Episode VII had turned out to be just another bad modern “Star Wars” movie, like Episodes I, II, and III (1999, 2002, 2005) had been. There seemed to be no hope for a new, modern, well-made “Star Wars” movie. It appeared as though the fans would have to survive on TV shows and videogames forever—something such a massive series just couldn’t survive on—especially one such as “Star Wars,” whose movies were the lifeblood of the franchise. It all seemed to be doomed, until the time leading up to the release of “Rogue One” on December 16, 2016. “Rogue One” was advertised as a standalone story, and it was set to take place as a mini-prequel to the
Lauren Mei / The Spectator
original trilogy. It features a whole new cast of characters—ones that we knew nothing about. “Rogue One” is a movie full of potential to break away from the problems faced by the other movies. Once the movie was out, all the hopes of it being different were fulfilled. Our main character, Jyn Erso, is most definitely not a copy of Luke Skywalker. She’s a criminal and a rogue Imperial citizen when we meet her in the present day of the movie. The resident pilot of the movie, Cassian Andor, is not wild like Han Solo— he’s a loyal soldier, dedicated to his cause and willing to die for the Rebellion. Even the droid of the group is unique—he’s clever, witty, and a little rude. As for the story, it’s an entirely different animal. It features themes of corrupt politics, radical beliefs, and dying (brutally, at that) for your cause. We watch character after character die, but die proudly, in the movie. These themes were present in Episodes IV-VI, but “Rogue One” went much further with this—the whole movie was based off of the internal conflicts of the Empire and Rebellion. “Rogue One,” overall, is much darker than other “Star Wars” movies. All the characters we learn to love in the 133 minutes of the film are tragically dead by the end. “Star Wars” has always featured tragic deaths, yes, but not once have they even come
close to killing off the entire cast of a movie. “Rogue One,” however, went there, and by doing so, it brought “Star Wars” to a whole new level of storytelling, expressing the heroic themes presented in the movie much more intensely than they would’ve otherwise been expressed. “Rogue One” is definitely worth seeing because it does so much for the series. It restores faith in the series, proving that there can, in fact, be an original storyline in a “Star Wars” film, and that Disney isn’t afraid to try something new. “Rogue One” is dark, brutal, and action-packed, yet also heroic, touching, and even funny at times. That’s the way a “Star Wars” movie should be: not too rough, yet not too sappy. The Star Wars universe itself is like that—intense, yet soft in some parts. There may be brutal battles and violent deaths, such as the death of Mace Windu at the hands of Darth Sidious. However, there are also sweet and touching moments that make the story feel more human, like Luke and his father’s last and only moments together. “Rogue One” hit that exact sweet spot. It was nearly perfectly balanced, and it came out to be a great movie. Most importantly, it may have saved the trust of millions of “Star Wars” fans in the ability of Lucasfilm to make a good movie in the modern age.