For some black people, slavery is not a popular subject matter for television and film, and many have openly expressed this view on Twitter and Facebook. The running joke is that black actors get nominated for awards only when they are playing slaves or other subservient characters. So the new WGN America series, Underground, about an enslaved group of people planning their escape via the Underground Railroad from a Georgia plantation, has a mountain of skepticism to overcome.
The Root caught up with one of its stars, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, in Atlanta after an advance screening of the show’s first episode at Clark Atlanta University to discuss why she chose to do Underground, her preparation for playing Rosalee, how she dealt with being “flogged” and why this show is important.
The Root: Had you been approached for this kind of period piece before?
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: No. Well, wait, I’m a lie. Yes, I have been, and I said no.
TR: So what was the difference-maker here?
JSB: This one was different. The writing was so incredible, and also this is a story I hadn’t seen. Misha Green, one of our creators, said, “We’ve seen the occupation; now we need to see the revolution.” And, for me, seeing our history told in this light, the ones who did rebel, the ones who did revolt, the revolutionaries, excited me. Seeing this story of the Underground Railroad … and that is such a proud part of our history that not a lot of us know about, where these brave men and women, they were heroes, really helped tear down the system of slavery just by running.
TR: Did you already know a little bit about this history, or did the show force you to learn things that you had never encountered?
JSB: Fortunately, I come from an activist mother, so I didn’t have to rely on the history books. The history books teach us nothing about the Underground Railroad aside from Harriet Tubman. So I knew more about it but, obviously, I had to dig deeper and expand my knowledge and do a lot of research once I took this project on. I had, like, a good two months to research before we started shooting, which isn’t a lot, and I continued it throughout the five months of us shooting.
I read slave narratives, books like Bullwhip Days, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. [The Root’s chairman] Henry Louis Gates has an amazing documentary called Many Rivers to Cross—really, his whole writings; he’s such a wealth of knowledge. But really, for me, I tried to find first-person accounts. I tried to read stories from men and women who had survived slavery because it’s different when you hear it from their mouths instead of reading it from a history book.
TR: So tell us about Rosalee. Who is she when we first see her, and who will she be when we last see her?