Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, the latest Amazon Prime miniseries, The Underground Railroad, marks famed director Barry Jenkins’s foray into streaming. Garnering universal acclaim, the show is bolstered by a historically important narrative, ambitious production design, and convincing performances.
Even though the actual Underground Railroad referred to a network of abolitionists and slaves who helped enslaved Black Americans to escape to safety, the series depicts a fictional reality in which a runaway slave, Cora, manages to embark on an actually hidden train that escorts slaves to freedom. The miniseries depicts her arduous journey as she struggles for survival.
10 Roots (2016) – Available On HBO Max
A retelling of the iconic BBC miniseries (which in turn was based on Alex Haley’s semi-historic book), Roots documents the tale of Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), a Mandinkan man sold into slavery and transported to America. Kinte’s culture shock and exploitation are explored in a gut-wrenching manner, while the rest of the narrative also deals with the lives of his descendants.
Much like its original source material, the central narrative of Roots highlights the importance of freedom in human society and how the very lack of it is capable of adversely affecting a few communities, severing ties with their homeland and culture.
9 Underground (2016 – 2017) – Available On Hulu
Starring Jurnee Smollett and Aldis Hodge, Underground is a two-season series that’s easily comparable to the Underground Railroad in terms of its era and premise. The title itself is a reference to the network of secret routes used by Black American slaves to escape into free states and Canada.
Set in the years preceding the Civil War, Underground deals with the attempts of slaves and abolitionists to harbor so-called “fugitives” on the path to freedom. Even though the story is largely fictional, it makes use of actual historical events and features real-life abolitionists, like Harriet Tubman and William Still.
8 The Good Lord Bird (2020) Available On Showtime
John Brown was an abolitionist heavily motivated by his religious ideals, believing that eradicating slavery was his holy duty. He intended to initiate a slave revolt but failed. However, his attempts at a raid on a Virginia arsenal eventually caused the Civil War.
Released as a miniseries, The Good Lord Bird presents a highly stylized rendition of Brown’s life story. Ethan Hawke plays the lead character, while Joshua Caleb Johnson plays Henry Shackleford, a fictional character who serves as one of the many abolitionist soldiers assembled by Brown. The Showtime production subverts familiar biographical tropes with its darkly comic approach to its source material.
7 Snowpiercer (2020 – ) Available On HBO Max
Based on Bong Joon-ho’s film of the same name, Snowpiercer is a dystopian thriller series centering around the titular train that circles the globe on a perpetual route. Much like the film, Snowpiercer, again, tackles the issue of social inequality as certain sections of the train are populated by an elite demographic, while an oppressed class dominates the rest of the vehicle.
Apart from class warfare, survival plays a major role in the series’ story arcs as the oppressed have no option but to fight against all odds within the train, as the world outside is deserted and frozen in this alternate future.
6 Small Axe (2020)- Amazon Prime
Just like The Underground Railroad, Small Axe is expected to be a major frontrunner in the miniseries category for the upcoming Emmy awards. Directed by Oscar-winner Steve McQueen, it is an anthology of five TV films, each of which deals with a particular aspect of the lives of immigrants from the West Indies who settled in Britain between the 1960s and the 1980s.
All five films are worth watching for their diverse moods, from delving into systemic racism to celebrating Black joy. Along with McQueen’s storytelling, Small Axe also offers unforgettable acting performances by cast members like John Boyega, Letitia Wright, and Shaun Parkes.
5 Lovecraft Country (2020) Available On HBO Max
Lovecraft Country is an amusing spin on supernatural horror in the times of segregation. As a Korean War veteran (Jonathan Majors) and a photographer (Jurnee Smollet) embark on a road trip to find his missing father, he encounters the horror of both white extremism and Lovecraftian monsters. Added in the mix is a town that served as a setting for many of HP Lovecraft’s renowned horror stories.
The series’ debut season drew much acclaim for tackling both real-life and other-worldly horrors with its stylish visuals and atmospheric tension.
4 The Handmaid’s Tale (2017 – ) Available On Hulu
The Handmaid’s Tale is a darkly disturbing tale of oppression that serves as a moral reminder for human society to not turn towards the direction of authoritarianism. Based on Margaret Atwood’s highly-acclaimed novel, the story takes place in the midst of a “Second Civil War” that has somehow left a vast majority of the elite women fertile.
A totalitarian system is set in place that targets all the remaining childbearing women as slaves for the infertile. Branded as “Handmaids,” they are tortured and oppressed to the point of total submission to the state. Bolstered by a terrific performance by Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be relevant with its hauntingly real modern-day fears.
3 The Long Song (2018) Available On PBS Masterpiece Amazon Channel
The Long Song explores the final years of slavery in Jamaica, chiefly from the perspective of July (Tamara Lawrence), a slave working at a sugarcane plantation. Adorned with Lawrence’s moving performance and a notably empathetic screenplay by Sarah Williams, the three-part miniseries garnered limited but highly positive critical praise back when it originally aired in 2018. From this year onwards, The Long Song is also available as a part of PBS’s long-running anthology series, Masterpiece.
Even though the setting is colonial Jamaica instead of slavery-era America, the themes and the black vs white/landlord vs tenant conflicts are still incorporated.
2 Self Made (2020) Available On Netflix
Madam C.J. Walker is widely regarded as the first self-made female millionaire in America, a feat that she achieved by marketing hair care and cosmetic products for Black American women in the early 20th century. Even though the Netflix miniseries Self Made has its share of dramatized elements, it still acts as a fitting tribute to Walker’s legacy (played by an Emmy-nominated Octavia Spencer).
Self Made also offers a glimpse into its figure’s professional competition, unstable marriages, and her struggles with the new dawn of a century, ultimately succeeding, despite all odds.
1 Them (2021) Available On Prime Video
Set in the 1950s, Them is an anthology series that depicts the terrifying experiences a Black family encounters while shifting to an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles. Much like Lovecraft Country, the horror in Them ranges from real-life acts of prejudiced hostility, as well as supernatural elements.
A genuinely frightening watch, Them signifies a new wave of socio-political horror. Word of warning, though, the series has some extremely strong violence and gore.
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