After the year he’s had, Anthony Hemingway already knows what the next question will be.
“Let me have it,” he chuckles. “‘The People v. O.J. Simpson.'”
In a long, drab hallway on the second floor of New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where Hemingway is promoting WGN America’s acclaimed “Underground” at Essence Festival, the prolific director leans against the wall. He knows, when asked to discuss his other projects, what “other projects” now means: FX’s anthology series “American Crime Story,” the most-watched new show on cable and the frontrunner in the Emmys’ stacked Limited Series category. But for Hemingway, whose credits also include “Empire,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Power,” and “Treme,” the work of bringing underrepresented perspectives to the screen transcends specific episodes and TV series.
“It’s about giving us these references to remind us, ‘Let’s wake up, people!’ Let’s be better,'” he says. “We say a lot, we talk a lot, but it’s time to be active. At least for me, as a filmmaker, I can use my own gift to contribute. You don’t only have to be a politician to make change. You can do something, and if you do it with love and it has a purpose and you’re serving that purpose, whatever it is will be evident.”
On “Underground,” which follows a group of escaped slaves known as “The Macon 7” as they make their way north from a Georgia plantation in 1857, that purpose is clear: From the start, creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski and director/executive producer Hemingway were determined to shatter the mold of “the slave narrative.” With anachronistic music cues and action/adventure sequences, the series is no pristine period piece. It is, for Hemingway, “a superhero story.”
“The intent in the beginning was to not want to take the viewers to the museum and give you a history lesson,” he says. “We wanted to take the paintings off the wall and let you live in it.”
Though these modern touches can be jarring, they signal the series’ willingness to depict more of black life in the antebellum South than what Hemingway calls “desecration and domination.”
“In finding the visual language for the show, we wanted it to be bold and different, and I think we continue to challenge each other, our collective creative team, to think outside of the box,” he says. “I think that you initially or instinctively go for that place of, ‘Oh, it was like this, it was like that.’ I wanted to defy all of that—to find a new way, to give it a more vibrant, hopeful palette and tone.”
The result is an engrossing, humane treatment of the subject, and one that retains a fair helping of historical depth, particularly with regard to the complex negotiations of life on the plantation. For the cast and crew of “Underground,” the first season of which was filmed at multiple historic locations in southern Louisiana, walking the same ground as their forebears was a constant reminder of those whose stories the series honors. As actor Alano Miller, who plays an enslaved overseer and Macon 7 member named Cato, remarked during the Essence Festival panel on “Underground,” “The spirit of those slave quarters is real.”
“It allowed us to stay focused, and it fueled our every thought and decision,” Hemingway says of the experience. “It made it so surreal. It was just helping us stay connected. We stand on those shoulders, and to feel their touch was really awesome.”
Ray Mickshaw/FX Networks
This recognition of the inextricable link between past and present also informed Hemingway’s work on “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” including his direction of the excellent bottle episode “A Jury in Jail,” which depicts the jurors’ draining eight-month sequestration from the inside out.
“There was so much I didn’t know. I realized, ‘Wow, this really relates to me, to my everyday walk,” Hemingway says. “In that episode, it was interesting to find ways to show the complexities of life. Any one of us could have been there, and been affected by it. It allowed me to understand how that story galvanized the country, and so many of us, and had such lasting effects.”
As to the second season of “American Crime Story,” which will focus on Hurricane Katrina and the floods that followed, Hemingway, the series’ producing director, is tight-lipped, confirming only that filming will be split between New Orleans and Los Angeles. Still, with his experience on “Treme”—including his direction of the first season’s “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” one of the most poignant fictional portraits of the city to emerge in the decade since the storm—Hemingway is well-equipped to treat the subject with the same nuance, the same depth, that marked “The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
“The writers are full speed ahead on trying to craft the structure of the season and understand where we’re going and what specifics we’re going to touch on,” he says. “‘Treme’ was such a great show, and dealt with so much of the love and spirit and heart of this city and the people who live in it and went through [Katrina], dealing with a city that was broken but didn’t die. I’m waiting myself to be kind of awakened, to understand where they’re going with it, because I swam in it so well and so much. I’m waiting to see what I can contribute to that.”
In the meantime, Hemingway, who’s emerged as one of Hollywood’s most perspicacious chroniclers of the black experience—in the deep South and the West Coast, from the nineteenth century to the present day—has more work to do. The pilot for his hip-hop crime drama “The Infamous,” starring Bokeem Woodbine and Jason O’Mara, has attracted interest from multiple “networks and platforms” since A&E declined to pick it up last month, he says, and principal production on the second season of “Underground” begins this fall.
If Hemingway’s time is stretched, “Underground” star Aldis Hodge doesn’t seem concerned. The series, he quips near the conclusion of the Essence Festival panel, is in good hands: “We got Anthony and Jesus.”