Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN)–“My mother’s first and last thing was an apology,” we hear this sentence in a voiceover as a young woman stares into the camera, her gaze reflecting fragility, strength, defeat, and defiance.
And Thoreau Mpidu can work miracles without even opening her mouth.
Employing a single muscle, her eyes, Mbedou plays Cora, a slave-woman, in director Barry Jenkins’s series The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
“You’re the character,” Mbedou recalls Jenkins saying. However, she did not understand that at the time.
The Underground Railroad series tells a story about slavery, in a world where the Underground Railroad has become a secret network that helped people escape in America.
The series also reflects the story of Cora, a daughter who is abandoned by her runaway mother.
“The only person to whom she would have opened her heart was her mother, but she left,” explains Mbedou, explaining: “If I open my heart, something can go wrong.”
“Honestly, that’s what I’ve been like for most of my life,” she says.
Mpidou’s mother died when she was very young, and had no relationship with her father, and then lost her uncle at the age of sixteen, never having the opportunity to say goodbye to him.
“People come in and out of my life, without any prior warning,” she says. “So, it made sense to me just to exclude people completely.”
The two-time international Emmy nominee and star of TV series “Is’Thunzi” and “Shuga” explained that she was turning down her previous roles when she found similarities between her characters and her private life.
However, she tested it in the “The Underground Railroad” series.
“Being 100% honest with the character meant that the problems I was going through had to be faced,” she says.
Mbedou says that historical injustices against blacks are often overlooked. “We were asked to move on because it happened so long ago,” she says.
The implication of “The Underground Railroad” is that the past is never dead.
Although the events may separate two centuries, one cannot witness an imaginary shooting in a church without thinking of the 2015 massacre in Charleston.
Mbedou says that the series’ mixing of fact and fiction raises questions about the truth of what we are watching, and in turn forces the viewer to ask: “What history have we learned true and what is not?”, which is a good thing, she says.
She added, “When you ask about something, you want to find the truth of the matter. And when you search for it, you can discover the truth, and that’s an evolution.”
“Everything I thought I knew about slavery in America … pales in comparison to what actually happened,” says Mpidou.
What she has achieved and what she is about to embark on, she says, “seems like a far-fetched dream”. “I need to go back to the drawing board and redefine my goals,” she says.
“Okay, then let’s find an Oscar-winning movie,” she joked to her team.
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