Love in the Time of Slavery: How Underground Railroad Celebrates Black Courtship Amid the Gloom and Pain

Warning: This post contains spoilers from The Underground Railroad.

As Cora and Caesar run through a field together toward freedom in the first episode of The Underground Railroad, the action pulls at the audiences’ emotions on various levels.

For starters, they are working as a team and freeing themselves from an inhumane system of bondage that should have never taken place. But dig a little deeper, and you can’t help but revel in the budding romance the two experience while self-liberating and searching for a better way of life. When Cora and Caesar (Krypton‘s Aaron Pierre) find temporary refuge in South Carolina in Episode 2, Caesar kisses her and plans a life where they get married and start a family.

Cora wants to believe this type of future with Caesar is possible, but she has to coquettishly give him a hard time first. “One kiss, and you’re talking about babies, huh?” she teases, proving that she sees how beautiful Caesar is, but desires to be playful at the same time. To tap into that chemistry, Thuso Mbedu, who stars as Cora, says she and Pierre hung out as friends in between shooting.

“Cora is so complex and so layered, but she does know how to flirt,” Mbedu tells TVLine. “And if Cora could’ve opened up, you would have seen so much more of her personality, but she was so guarded and wounded. That’s why those glimpses that we do see with Caesar are so important, because you get to see how the external world affected her internal world and made all the difference.”

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Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who adapted Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book for his Amazon Prime limited series, says exploring Cora’s loves and losses is an important way to make her relatable.

“Spiritually, we’re connected as a continuum,” Jenkins says. “And our ancestors, even living under the condition of American slavery, no doubt had longings and yearnings.”

Unfortunately for Cora and Caesar, their aspirations for a life together get cancelled by a racist white mob that savagely murders Caesar because he was connected to Cora’s accidental killing of a white boy while trying to escape. After that, Caesar and Cora have to say goodbye via her visions and dreams, which is more than she gets to do in the Underground Railroad book.

“What Barry does so beautifully with this series is he allows Caesar to transcend into a different sphere,” Pierre says. “Although he may not be there in body, he is there in spirit for Cora for the duration of her journey. In that, he triumphs above the way his life came to an end, which was hateful and violent.”

Later, Cora meets Royal, played by The Good Place‘s William Jackson Harper. He’s a free-born Black man who helps Cora escape the grasp of Ridgeway (played by Joel Edgerton) initially, and they eventually fall in love once she releases the memory of Caesar. Sadly, Cora and Royal’s happiness is fleeting also because a racist white man kills him. But when things are good, Royal and Cora flirt, and he tells her she’s pretty when she smiles, and she later tells him he’s also pretty when he smiles.

“In order to lean into the lightness and the hope, we hung out quite a bit and had a lot of fun. She’s just amazing,” Harper says of Mbedu. “She’s very generous as a scene partner, and when you have that kind of admiration and general affinity for a person like that, it’s really easy to find yourself locking in with them so that chemistry comes naturally to the scenes.”

“I attribute that to Thuso being a superior being in so many ways. Period,” he adds. “Barry would throw little things at us to say in a scene that were outside the script, or we’d improv little things here and there, and he’s hyper collaborative in that way. Stuff in that moment will just hit him, and we would go with it and try it. That sort of thing is necessary in a process like this because it breaks up the emotional tension of the story and makes you feel like you have a lot of freedom.”

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