Some of the negative criticism of WGN’s new slavery-era series “Underground,” currently wrapping up its first season, has taken issue with its tone. Instead of the somber portrayal critics (and audiences) might have been expecting, “Underground” uses slavery as the backdrop to tell a story of adventure and intrigue. These criticisms are not necessarily unfounded (the pilot even features an “Ocean’s 11”-style get-the-team-together montage, though the stakes are considerably higher), but they are, perhaps, misguided in judging what the show is trying to accomplish.
This disruption of the typical slave narrative, according to co-creator Misha Green, is entirely by design. Speaking at a panel sponsored by NYU’s Fusion Film Festival, Green, with series stars Amirah Vann and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, explained how their show uses drama to educate and, by giving enslaved characters agency and humor, bring to light a story of empowerment that has been glossed over in the telling of American history.
But how to make genocide palatable to a weekly audience? Much has been made of the soundtrack, which features modern songs, many of them selected by series co-producer John Legend. This decision, said Green, “was to bridge the gap from the past to the present and make you see they’re not so different.” She said it occurred to her while watching Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” which — like other films, including Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” — features a soundtrack anachronistic to its setting.
In addition to the music, the show uses heart and humor to bring modern audiences into the world of the show. Not only is this an accurate depiction of plantation life, Smollett-Bell said, it’s essential to restoring humanity to the people who literally built this country. “When you read about slavery in a lot of high school history books, it talks about it from such a removed point of view,” she said. “But when you read firsthand accounts… you realize that these are human beings and they did love, they did laugh, they did sing. And they were constantly stealing joys and constantly trying to steal their liberties, and constantly trying to find ways to survive and cope with the situation. And constantly trying to find little ways to rebel.”
Reading those accounts and reckoning with those dualities helped Smollett-Bell (whose interview with celebrated activist Marian Wright Edelman recently appeared in Lenny) shape her performance of Rosalee, one of the ensemble cast’s main protagonists. “It was just so important to dive into the mind of, ‘I might be told I’m a slave, but I’m a person’,” she said.
Green made a similar statement about the depiction of American slaves in previous fiction and nonfiction works. “You look at this time period and you see how it’s been portrayed, and it feels like there’s a void,” Green said. “You’ve never seen this time period portrayed with those who are enslaved having personal agency. I wanted to see that they laughed and loved and had so many complexities to them.” The characters have suffered, yes, and their intolerable living conditions are certainly part of the show. But a show about the Underground Railroad naturally focuses on those with hope, those with a will to fight, those who took a chance to rebel.
Vann takes it one step further, saying that while slavery might be America’s great shame, the African-American descendants of slaves can watch the show and look on the story of the Underground Railroad as “a point of pride.” In fact, she said, “For all Americans, this is the first integrated civil rights movement.” In addition to the slaves on the Macon plantation, where much of the series is set, “Underground” features a number of White abolitionists in the North, people we today might call allies.
“That’s the truth. We’re not playing it up. This is reality. We’ve all come together at moments in history to say let’s not be divided,” Vann said. “Let’s look towards the real problem, which is outside of us, which is the institutions of slavery.” All of the characters fighting against slavery, she declared, “are heroes” and being part of this show is “an honor.”
Learning, according to Green, was always one of the vital goals of the show. Paraphrasing attorney Nina Shaw, she said, “You cannot understand the current state of our nation unless you understand the enslaved people.” But understanding and education are different things, especially when it comes to period pieces, and getting executives on board with her vision was no easy feat. “One room we went into was like…’Okay, I’m ready for my history lesson.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re never gonna like this,'” Green said.
Even after the pilot was sold, she had to wage a fight very few showrunners ever have to deal with: She wanted actors who were…too good-looking. “One of the funny things when we were casting, one of the things that was said was, ‘Your cast is getting too pretty,'” Green said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know what that means…we want to watch pretty people.'” Because, you know, she wants people to want to watch her show.
All three women know the show speaks to current issues facing oppressed and minority people today. And all three women know it does so by being, first of all, compelling television. When pressed by an audience member on how “Underground” might spark dialogue and activism in its viewers, Green said, “You have to make the thing digestible in a way that people can digest it and then they go, ‘Wow, wait a minute, that thing you just did is crazy…’ It’s that fine line between entertaining and not teaching but telling the truth…and then making it a thriller. People are like, is it like ‘Prison Break’? And I’m like, sure, if you wanna say it’s ‘Prison Break,’ it’s ‘Prison Break.’ If that makes you want to watch the show, that’s what it is.”
“Underground” airs Wednesdays at 10pm on WGN America.