Personally, I’ve always found it puzzling when people denounce slave stories. Though black and brown faces are too often confined solely to films about slavery and enslavement, I still don’t relish the complete eraser of these tales. After all, this pivotal time in history has shaped not only our people, but our country as well. However, Black people do need to take on these stories ourselves. It should not be left up to the Hollywood establishment to present the history of our people on screen. It’s past time for us to take the reigns. With Nate Parker’s unprecedented success with his film “Birth Of A Nation” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and now with WGN America’s striking television series “Underground”, it seems that we are finally moving in that direction.
Last fall, I got the opportunity to screen the pilot episode of “Underground” in Memphis, Tennessee at the Civil Right’s Museum. However, I could reveal little about the series at the time. However, now that “Underground” finally set to air on WGN America, and after screening the first four episodes, I’m thrilled to share just a bit more about it.
If you’ve studied slavery at all, then you know just how detailed and intricate the Plantation South was during the antebellum period. “Underground” is set in Georgia in 1857, just a few years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, and several years after the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act were passed. These two pieces of legislation made the lives of runways and free Black people even more difficult. The series excels in not just displaying the intricacies of a vast cotton plantation, but also in presenting every character that lived within the confines of the land; each individual having their own role to play and path to follow. Helmed by creators and executive producers Misha Green (“Sons of Anarchy’) and Joe Pokaski (“Heroes”), and executive produced by John Legend and director Anthony Hemingway, “Underground“ is so much more than a slave story, it’s a masterful thriller about the underground railroad and the heroic men and women who would do anything to gain their freedom.
The series stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell (“True Blood”) as Rosalee, a young and mild mannered house slave who seems content to follow behind her mother, Ernestine (played sensationally by Amirah Vann). Alano Miller (“Jane the Virgin”) stars as Cato, the plantation’s driver who seems to relish his position, despite being despised and feared by his fellow slaves. Aldis Hodge (“Straight Outta Compton”) stars as Noah, a blacksmith who galvanizes his fellow slaves because of his burning desire for freedom. The robust cast also includes, Christopher Meloni, Jessica de Gouw and Reed Diamond among many others.
With such a large ensemble cast, it would be easy for characters to get lost in the shuffle, but Green, Pokaski and Hemingway are able to flesh out their characters in a way I’ve never seen in this genre previously. Episode by episode, individual characters’ pasts and motivations spring forth, often haunting the viewer and forcing them to question everything they’ve learned thus far. There are very difficult moments to watch in the series. After all, slavery was horrific. And yet, “Underground” does not force us to sit with its characters and wallow in despair. This is not a hopeless narrative about enslavement, is it a series about strength and the willingness to risk everything for freedom. Set to a soundtrack that includes everyone from Kanye West to Raphael Saadiq to The Weeknd, “Underground’s” compelling twist and turns make it worth the watch.
On the eve of the premiere, I got the opportunity to chat with series stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Alano Miller as well as Misha Green, Joe Pokaski and historian Eric Foner at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Here is what I learned.
Why do a slave narrative in 2016?
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: Well, it’s the Underground Railroad, it’s that narrative, and why not? That’s the question that we ask. The Underground Railroad is a narrative that hasn’t been told, it’s a story that is one sentence or a paragraph in the history books and most times, the history book sum it up to the legend of Harriet Tubman. However, there were thousands of men and women who risked their lives and who changed the trajectory of our nation by just running.
What was the starting point for “Underground”?
Misha Green: Joe and I started doing a lot of research and in every story we found that the truth was stranger than fiction. It hadn’t been told yet, and what we talk about all the time is that it’s not about the occupation, it’s about the revolution. It was important that we saw enslaved people with agency, as well as those that were helping them. We wanted to really explore this time period in a way that we have never really delved into, and I think that television allows you to do that because it’s a long form.
How did you go about recreating 1857 and the numerous characters in “Underground”, that spread from Georgia to Washington D.C.?
Joe Pokaski: A lot of it was inspired by research; like Misha said we really dug in. We started listening to the Library of Congress’ recordings of people who were slaves. We almost suffered from too much great story.
Misha Green: (Laughing) That’s why our cast is so big.
Joe Pokaski: A lot of the exciting moments in the series came from true life and amazing stories.
Considering the blatant racism that is plaguing America right now, why do you think the country is ready for a show like this?
Joe Pokaski: I think that this is part of a struggle that we are still fighting. A lot of times, people look at that era and pat themselves on the back for moving past it. But, what we found is that it’s more likely that we haven’t come as far as we like to give ourselves credit for. So, it feels like anytime is a good time to tell this story.
For the actors, what characteristics did you see in your characters that you also see in yourself?
Alano Miller: What I love about Misha and Joe is the fact that they show the flaws in characters and they understand that these flawed characters deserve to have redeeming qualities. For me, I looked at Cato and I judged him, I said all of these things about him and then I had to figure out where his humanity was. Where is the love within him? Where is the fear and the bravery inside of him? For me the things that were positive within him, I was fighting to make sure those qualities were seen. And, the things that were not like me, I didn’t judge. I just saw where they were coming from, I started to respect him and understand, and therefore my compassion for him grew.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: There are a number of things I can relate to with Rosalee. She fiercely protects her brother and is close with her family, and that’s the most obvious things I have in common with her. Personality-wise, I can relate to the fact that she is underestimated all of the time. People pigeonhole her as one thing and she has this amazing inner strength that comes out of her when it needs to. She’s a lot stronger than she’s even aware of, and that is a strength that will take her far. I think that we as women in general struggle with the fact that society tries to tell us who we are. They try to tell us that we don’t have value, and we don’t have importance. While it was such an extreme case in 1857 to be a woman of color on a plantation, I definitely feel the residue that my lineage was dealing with. I feel that, I inherit that and without a doubt I struggle with it every day. So there are a number of things we have in common but for me, the most exciting things were the things we did not have in common. That’s the stuff that Joe and Misha worked with me on. Shedding the woman that I am of 2016 and having to step back into 1857 is an awesome challenge as an actor, because it definitely was a different world in so many ways.
Was there ever a moment when you had a difficult time leaving Rosalee at work?
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: Yeah, there is a scene in the pilot that was one of the hardest scenes I’ve had to do in my entire career. I didn’t know how we we’re going to do it, I knew what the page said and I knew what the choreography was, but afterwards I couldn’t shake it. I just stood there for a few moments shaking and crying. Misha, Aldis, Anthony and Amirah just surrounded me and let me cry for a few minutes. That spirit on that plantation, you feel it the second you walk on the grounds. I’ve just thought of all the Rosalee’s who’ve had to do that, who had to put their dignity aside, you go against your nature by doing that. I think that’s what I struggled with the most, your instinct is to run and to protect yourself and she has to go against that. For all the women who have done that, I was just so overwhelmed by it.
What is the most important message that viewers can take away from the series?
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: There are so many. One thing to note though is that this was the first integrated Civil Rights movement in our nation. Joe and Misha always say, “How active is your activism?” You have the abolitionist in the North, Black and white who could have done nothing. But, they made the choice to step outside their comfort zone and help and put their lives on the line. The runaways had the courage to run and carter new territory. While we don’t have that physical run today, we are still running. When we work together as a nation and we aren’t just tweeting a hashtag that is popular, we are actively putting in the work. That is the only time we are going to see our country move forward.
Alano Miller: Understanding the strategy behind it is also so important. The Underground Railroad was strategic, as was the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. We have to understand there is strategy is this. It is one thing to raise our voices, but it’s going to take more than that.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: We also need to understand that every single person matters. We sum up these movements to Martin Luther King or to Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. But, there were thousands of people who will never get credit who were putting their lives at risk and doing their part. Every little thing we do whether it’s mentoring someone or bringing up a child or cleaning up the trash in your neighborhood; every little thing you do can help make your community better.
Considering everything that is happening today, how timely is “Underground”?
Joe Pokaski: We always say it could have and should have been told twenty years ago. It’s very timely.
Eric Foner: There are plenty of books on the Underground Railroad. I wrote one of them, many people wrote others. What is different about “Underground” is that its putting the story out to a mass audience. It’s not as if the story hasn’t been told. It has been told many times, but not in this medium.. You know better than I how over the years Hollywood has been so terrible in how it has portrayed slavery, up until perhaps 2013’s “12 Years A Slave”. It’s a long history of misrepresentation so this fights back against that.
Joe Pokaski: This is by definition a story that had to be secretive. William Still and Frederick Douglass were angry at Henry “Box “Brown for doing the play about how he escaped, because other people could have done so. So this is something where people had to have discipline, and had to be quiet about how they got free so other people could save themselves. So now it’s the time to tell this story and celebrate this heroism.
How historically accurate is “Underground”?
Alano Miller: We shot in real slave quarters on real plantations in Louisiana, and those are real swamps. Walking onto those sets, we knew it was holy ground. There’s a weight that was there and we knew we had to be responsible in telling the story the right way. What an honor to be in the same space as your ancestors and to not know what the notches meant in the wood or where the bloodstains came from but, you know everything in those spaces have a story and courage, pain, love and joy. And of course with the costuming they were heavy and full and hot and everything that came along with it. There were no soles on the bottom of the shoes. There is all of those things we had to take on as actors.
Did you mentally prepare for your roles?
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: I always do start with research. I started with slave narratives. There’s an amazing book called “The Bullwhip Days”, there’s “Incidents In the Life Of A Slave Girl”, there is the work of William Still; he kept amazing accounts of runaway slaves. There was Henry Louis Gates’ documentary, “Many Rivers To Cross”. I think when you start with that, there’s this privilege. When you read these accounts of what actually happened you can’t complain about the conditions that you’re in as an actor. When you start to understand that these were living breathing people, and that these were real experiences, you start to appreciate it.
“Underground” will debut on WGN America this evening March 9th at 10PM ET. You might also want to look out for a very special guest star who appears in episodes three and four.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami