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‘Underground’ Sneak: Heroic Slaves in a Story About Freedom Rarely Told in American History

'Underground' Sneak: Heroic Slaves in a Story About Freedom Rarely Told in American History

Last month I was invited to Memphis, Tennessee to screen the first episode of the WGN Americas’ upcoming series “Underground”. Stepping off the plane and making my way through the airport, I felt as if I had been jolted back in time. Memphis is one of those places that seem to be frozen in a specific era, steps behind other cities across the country; especially a city like New York. The evening I arrived, I made my way to Blues City Café, a restaurant recommended by my hotel concierge. As I walked along the deathly quiet streets alone, I realized this was one of those rare places that forced you to slow down and really absorb what was happening around you.

The next evening, I made my way to the press screening which was held in the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is built around the former Lorraine Motel, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Walking up to the museum door, you see not only the balcony where MLK Jr. last stood, but also the room where his assassin hid. To say it was eerie is an understatement. I’d arrived at this particular place to see the first episode of a series surrounding the lives of slaves who lived on a Georgia plantation in 1857. Still, the ride that “Underground” took me on that evening was nothing like I had expected. Though I am anxious to share more of my thoughts on the first episode, I will wait until we get closer to the series premiere to share more. 

Until then, here are some highlights from the panel of cast and creators, including, actors Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Alano Miller, Amirah Vann; creators, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, as well as producer Mike Jackson and the museum’s Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education, Dr. Noelle Trent.

On Coming to “Underground”

Jurnee Smollett-Bell: The way my agent described it was as a TV show about slavery. It wasn’t until I read the script that I thought, oh I get it, this is not what I thought it was.  I wouldn’t have done this if it were something that we’ve seen before because it’s already been done and done well. What excited me so much about ”Underground” is that this is a narrative we haven’t seen.  The Underground Railroad is a paragraph in our history books and the name that they mention is Harriet Tubman.  And for me, it was incredibly exciting to see these stories played out. These are untold stories and voices that we have never heard from.

Alano Miller: I think I was with Jurnee on this because I thought, I don’t know if this is going to be possible.  But obviously the script is just amazing. I think what made me feel great about it is that it wasn’t about victims. This was a group of people who were taking ownership. They were heroes, they were revolutionaries, and they were trying to break the mold. I think that’s a story that we just don’t tell. We have to change the perspective of slavery in a sense that it is something that greatness is born out of, as opposed to, we are just beaten and destroyed. So with that, Joe and Misha brilliantly throughout the series, just keep building these superheroes up.

Amirah Vann: Going though this tour after having now done season one, I’m so proud of what we overcame. I feel too often when I was coming up, all I heard were the horrors. That’s the only thing that was echoing in my spirit and in my mind. This time around, having been able to do this series, I heard more of the heroic side of it. The same story was being told, but I was like, oh my God, we overcame that, we built that, oh they fought for that, and they believed in that. There was hope, and that’s a beautiful thing and I want to pass it on.

On Knowing the History of the Underground Railroad.

Misha Green:  I didn’t know much actually, like Jurnee said, there really is just a paragraph in our history books.  I knew that it was an amazing story, but, the more we started researching it was like, truth is stranger than fiction. We couldn’t make up the stories we were reading, the ways that these people were fighting back.  From the beginning we knew that this wasn’t about the occupation, it was about the revolution. And to know it was based in truth gave it a deeper meaning.

Joe Pokaski: I was a political science major, and all I knew about the Underground Railroad was that square you see. That was part of what really excited me about this project, was how ignorant I was to the experience. I remember thinking as a really stupid kid in junior high that if I was a slave I would just hook up with the Underground Railroad, and problem solved. What Misha and I learned as we researched, was that most slaves were either recaptured or killed; it was the hardest thing a human being could do. As a writer, you have to make up stories about people who are told they’re worthless, and put up against horrible odds. This is probably the most heroic story that has never been told in American History.

On the Key Themes In “Underground”

Misha Green: I think about what kind of world we are building for our children. I think that is definitely a theme that you see in the pilot and throughout the entire series; because I think that it’s something worth thinking about. And also, how active is you activism.

On John Legend & Mike Jackson’s Involvement with “Underground”

Mike Jackson: Well John and I were aware of the project, and I’ve known Jurnee and Aldis Hodge, who plays Noah for many years. So, I knew what they were working on. I was also very familiar with Misha, so when we got the call and the script, we were blown away. The types of things we like to do are things that are important, great stories that shine a light on social justice. That was something that was really important to us, so “Underground” just spoke volumes to our taste.

On the Importance of Screening “Underground” at the National Civil Rights Museum

Dr. Noelle Trent: This story is important to the museum for several reasons. It taps into the origins of the African American experience, but it also taps into something that is so essential to who we are. It taps into this idea of resistance. Resistance is not a modern 20th century or 21st century thing, it has its roots in the 19th century and it’s not in the big personalities, big legislation and big events. That’s all great, and we study those things however, it is the everyday person, the nuisances and subtleties of every experience that makes those changes. So, it’s the person sitting at the lunch counter refusing to move; it’s the domestic worker who chooses not to ride a segregated bus and walk or carpool with people to get where they need to go. It’s those moments that change things. That’s what we want our visitors to realize when they come here. You don’t have to be Ralph Abernathy; you don’t have to be Martin Luther King for you to make a change. It’s those everyday choices and that’s what we want to highlight, that’s what we want to emphasize.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell on Her Character Rosalee’s Journey

Jurnee Smollett-Bell: It’s interesting we were talking about this because we did ten episodes for the first season, and by the tenth episode we had to go back and shoot a scene from the pilot that they wanted to add. It was just a five sec snippet that they wanted to add. When I put the clothes back on, and the hair and everything, I said, who is this girl? The writing and arc that Joe and Misha take my character on is bananas. I mean that change that I go through, I really felt like a completely different girl from episode one to ten.

Alano Miller on His Character Cato

Alano Miller: So I’m the driver, which is very interesting. When you first meet Cato, you think you automatically know who he is. But I loved what Misha and Joe do; they allow us to turn that character upside down. Cato is this, but he’s also this and he’s a little bit of that. So it fleshes this character out. He has a goal, and he’s been put into a circumstance so he starts to make decisions. He’s a chess player, so he becomes very intelligent about how he uses his power and manipulation to get to his end goal. And he also has his weaknesses and his flaws, and as we go through the series, my hope is, depending on how it’s edited (*Laughing”), is that, at the end of the day, you may love him, you may hate him, but I hope that your respect him. None of us have been put in this situation, so you don’t know what you’d be willing to do. Therefore it’s my job as an actor to find the hero in him.

Amirah Vann on Her Character Ernestine

Ernestine is doing that she has to do to survive.  The reason why I love her is because I see my mother, my sisters, my aunties, and my girlfriends who are wonderful mothers. I see all of them in Ernestine. And the idea of being willing to put your life on the line, anything but your child’s life, that I understand. I love her so much because she is so complicated. And I love that Misha, Joe and Anthony Hemingway, who is a brilliant director and executive producer, wanted to look at someone who was working in the house at that time. To be able to go into what it is to wake up thinking about the master and the mistress’ needs, to go along all day thinking about that, and to go to bed thinking that. And I also get to have a beautiful arc as well, so that, at the end of the season, Ernestine sees things differently.

On “Underground” Not Being a Slave Drama

Joe Pokaski: This is a freedom drama if its anything. All of the characters have a little bit of us in them, and I think, when you watch the show, you’ll have certain ones that you gravitate towards, and our goals is that, every week, you will have a new favorite character.

Misha Green: I think, right from the start, when we conceived this show, we always talked about how we wanted to be bold.  We are used to seeing this period as kind of “Gone With the Wind,” that portrait on the wall. We wanted to take that portrait off and live in it, and I think that starts with the characters. And so it’s a very big cast, and we just wanted to spend time with everyone, because there is just so much of this period and this time that we don’t get to see. We wanted to laugh and cry and love with these people.

On the Importance of Music

Mike Jackson: When we first started talking to Joe and Misha about the music in this series, they couldn’t stress enough how important it was to this story. The first song that opens the series is Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” which sets you up for the ride that you are about to go on. I’m not going to go into too much about the music because it’s still top secret, but there is some great music that is in store for the show. We actually wrote an incredible main title song called “Heaven’s Door” which we are really excited about. It’s a Negro spiritual with a lot of contemporary flavor.

On the “Underground” filming Experience as an Actor

Jurnee Smollett-Bell: I think this whole process has been such a beautiful experience for us, but one thing that it’s done collectively for all of us was humble us. The conditions were crazy, and there was a lot of physicality involved, we were doing our own stunts, we shot in Baton Rouge, the mosquitoes are awful, but we were in it. We shot on real plantations; we shot at LSU Rural Life Museum in the real slave quarters. You could feel it the second you stepped into that soil with the trees and everything, you just think of strange fruit. For us, we just kept remembering the fact that these were real people. We could get to our car, we could eat whenever we wanted to, we had air conditioner when Alano would get sun sick (*Laughing*).

Alano Miller: Oh wow! (*Laughing*). Yes I got sun sick, it was 115 degrees folks.  We were on a boat for 15 hours.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell: At the end of the day, it humbled us because these were real people who went through this in real life, and we could step away from it. And we are so blessed and so fortunate to be able to step into it, and give voice to these voiceless, nameless people.  It’s a privilege and an honor, but again I think the level of gratitude that we have taken on is because this project will make you feel grateful to be alive in 2015.

Alano Miller: My ritual started from the moment I went into the makeup room. It was a two-hour experience, and then walking into the plantation, observing the scratches on the floor that’s real bloodstains, those are real chains. That thickness in the air, that’s real.  That’s a spirit.  There was this one particular scene that took us four days to shoot because every time we tried to shoot it, a thunderstorm would hit in that particular area.  We all had to cling to each other, that humility and the breath we had to take, we all understood the severity of this moment in our lives, where this story and this braveness that they took, the braveness of WGN, all of it coming together, it was destiny for us to be here; for us to lay this story out. So hopefully it will encourage and inspire and motivate you to use that fire in your belly to do more, to be great, and to know where you come from.

On “Underground” as a Contemporary Story

Mike Jackson: The story is sending us back to the Underground Railroad, but it’s also a contemporary story in a lot of ways thematically. I mean, we’re still running for freedom; we’re still imprisoned and enslaved in the penitentiary system. So, there are a lot of themes in the show that are relatable to contemporary American.

On the Importance of the Year 1857

Dr. Noelle Trent: I personally think that that 1850’s is one of my favorite decades in the 19th century; and I say that because this is at a time when each event that happens in that decade adds to the fire. It would eventually explode into what was going to be The Civil War. In 1850 we start throwing all types of things into that fire. Everything from The Compromise of 1850, to The Fugitive Slave Act, literally changed the ground that people were living on. If you were a fugitive slave living in Ohio or New York prior to 1850, once you crossed that border from slave state to free state, you were considered a free individual. After 1850, that changes, and you’re no longer free. The Fugitive Slave Act means that the slave catcher can go from Louisiana to New York City or to Michigan, track you down and take you back. That’s part one. Part two is that if you’re going to a wedding and a fugitive slave runs past you, and law enforcement is after them, they can stop you on the street, deputize you, and you are legally obligated to pursue that slave regardless of what is happening in your life. If you don’t, there is either jail time or a fine of around $1,000; so it’s a significant fine and significant burden on you. Part three is that, if you are captured, you have to remember that photography is very new at this time. They have a very generic description, for example, “tall dark, Negro, male with a scar”.  That could be anybody. They can find you and they take you to the adjudicator. Because you can’t testify, the adjudicator says, well I think you are his slave and you get shipped back. Mind you, the adjudicator gets money for every slave they ship back.  So now the tension in this country is palpable. In 1857 we are now at the Battle of Bleeding Kansas where John Brown and his sons basically say, throw down your Bible and get a gun. Henry Ward Beecher is shipping riffles; people are battling. The tension in this country is absolutely ripe and we are going to explode. And we are three years from when South Carolina would succeed from the Union, which was on December 20, 1860.

On Setting “Underground” in Georgia & on a Large Plantation

Misha Green: We chose Georgia because we wanted to show that this was a journey. The intensity of it is its 600 miles on foot, through unknown territory with people chasing you, and without a map. I think that for us, it was important to see that this was not just bravery, it was a leap of faith.

Joe Pokaski: Yes, and I think the only thing to add is that the Civil War is right around the corner, and the Underground Railroad became the spy network for the north. With the times, it adapted, and the struggle continued. We thought the 8 years following 1857 was just amazing with how individuals with determination help bend the arc of history.

On What They Want Audiences to Learn From “Underground”

Joe Pokaski: I think for me working on this every day, the two central questions are, “Am I brave enough to run?” and “Am I willing to help people who are?”  So for me, when people watch it, I want them to be entertained, but I also challenge them to be more active in their activism.

Misha Green: Ditto.

“Underground” will premiere in early 2016 on WGN America.


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: or tweet her @midnightrami

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