In the past five years alone, we've seen slavery depicted in 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained and, coming this summer, a remake of Roots - all of which portray the same painful piece of American history in different lights.
That's why, ahead of Underground's March premiere, some wondered aloud, "Do we really need another slave story?" Not only do these stories reopen old wounds, the argument goes, but they feel limiting — especially when a conversation about opportunities for people of color on screen is at center of Hollywood's consciousnesses. Haven't we seen plenty of black actors being whipped, begging and running?
Underground's creative team understands those questions.
"That's out there - that some people definitely felt some fatigue." says Misha Green, creator, writer and executive producer of Underground. "We've heard all the hesitation. We say, "Just show up for the episodes.' It's worth coming back to week after week."
She's very much right.
Underground escapes worn-out tropes with compelling characters including Noah (Aldis Hodge), his band of comrades and love interest Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to become, simply, a great thriller about people running for their lives. That Underground digs into the mechanics of slavery — the economics of the business, the inhumane atrocities and the unfathomable choices they had to make to stay alive — makes it all the more resonant. The show is in many ways a feat, and not just because several networks passed on it before it landed at WGN.
"This story by definition had to be secret," says co-creator writer and executive producer Joe Pokaski, who was part of the team that visited the White House for a special screening during Black History Month. Academics and scholars were on hand, explaining how the Underground Railroad required 007-level secrecy. "I was extremely ignorant about [the Railroad]. But the more we learned about it, the people felt like heroes."
The show leaves a lot to unpack - steamy sex scenes, the moral choices people had to make to protect themselves or children, the role of white abolitionists in the fight for freedom. If you haven't started watching already, here are just some of the reasons you really should be watching this show.
[Warning: some spoilers on upcoming episodes ahead.]
The music: Much has been said about the score for the show - and with good reason. Although Kanye West is no longer the musical director as initially planned, his "Black Skinhead" in the first episode set a very cool tone. Throughout the series, up-to-the-minute music (like The Weeknd's "Wicked Games" playing during a sensual slave party) provides a surprising contrast to what's happening on screen. There's rock, EDM, and soul too - all coming in at moments that help prevent Underground from being a stiff period piece but something that feels fresh. The music, says Misha Green, is "a way of bridging past and present. It doesn't feel like a sepia-toned slave narrative. This is one of the most heroic stories in U.S. history." Of course, we learn early on that music is integral to the premise of the show, since the secret route to freedom is cleverly hidden in the coded lyrics of a song the slaves sang to one another.
The characters: Jurnee Smollett is excellent as Rosalee, born and raised on a Georgia plantation. She's as cunning and resourceful as she is naive, which raises the stakes when she decides to run off with Noah. Cato (Alano Miller) is captivating as the black overseer who juggles his loyalties - eager to escape with the team but determined to save his own hide at all costs. In that way, he's like Ernestine (Amirah Vann), Rosalee's head-of-house mother who protects her children and others by any means necessary--including sex and murder. Jurnee's brother Jussie Smollett, (Empire) is astonishing in Wednesday's episode as a sadistic escaped slave who confronts well-intentioned white abolitionists John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) and his wife Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica de Gouw). Among the other standouts is August Pullman (Christopher Meloni ) a slave capturer whose confused moral compass doesn't prevent him from capturing desperate people on the run for a profit."Part of the reason we're drawn to format of TV," says Green, "is that you have time to show they laughed and loved they had complexity to them. They had distinct identities and personalities."
The suspense: Suspense and danger is baked into the plot of course, but in addition to the running and hiding Noah and his friends must do, there are also the quieter tense moments - like when Rosalee stole a stamp to help create free papers, triggering Ernestine to discover her and devise a clever plan to cover it up before any more slaves get hurt. Cato, especially, will continue to shock you with his choices. At any given moment he could be loyal to his brethren or throw one of his own to the wolves without a thought. "With Cato hopefully you'll be surprised at every turn," Green explains. "He's a complex character - one of those characters we're fascinated by. You want to pigeonhole him as a villain...he's gone through a lot."
The true-to-life events: Obviously, the choices the people in this narrative make are a consequence of the awful condition they're in. So when characters decide to kill themselves or a child rather than endure another day of bondage, the unfortunate truth is that very little of this is fictionalized. It all happened to real people-including Henry "Box" Brown, the slave whose idea to ship himself from Virginia to abolitionists in Philadelphia in a wooden crate is depicted in an episode. Loads of research went into the series, the creators say, which provides a wealth of material about ingenious plots slaves hatched to escape. Did you ever hear, for example, the story of bi-racial Ellen Craft, who posed as a white man and, with husband William as her "slave" calmly and cooly fled Georgia via train and steamboat? "There's so much to be told," Green says. "There's not enough air time."
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on WGN.