‘It’s About Revolution’: Underground Gets Real About Escaping Slavery

Stars of the WGN drama talk to The Root about their harrowing new series.

Aldis Hodge as Noah in the new WGN series Underground
Aldis Hodge as Noah in the new WGN series Underground WGN via YouTube screenshot

Why another slavery narrative? One TV show cast is asking, “Why not?”

That was the sentiment of the stars, writers and producers of the new slavery-based TV show Underground, premiering March 9 on WGN. The cast and crew, who were in Washington, D.C., last week to promote the series, spoke with The Root about the need for a show like Underground.

“I’ve never seen these strengths of our people glorified the way they did in this show. The foundation is formidable,” said actor Aldis Hodge, who stars in Underground alongside actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell and actors Alano Miller and Christopher Meloni.

“[I’m] so excited that we see so many different aspects of who we were as a people and get to really explore them and not just victimize them, but really show who they were,” Smollett-Bell said.

The cast of Underground contends that at a time when American history books gloss over slavery, playing down its horror, the reality is, these stories aren’t being told. Not in schools. Often not in homes. And not in fully realized ways.

Many members of the cast shared the sentiment that rarely are stories of black rebellion or self-emancipation amplified. Underground isn’t a series about black passivity or basic survival in the face of oppression, they contend; it’s about resistance in the most extreme circumstances.

And how many films or TV shows have depicted the Underground Railroad, the covert network that helped thousands of runaway slaves escape bondage?

Other than the oft forgotten, 1994 made-for-TV film Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad, which premiered on BET and the Family Channel more than 22 years ago, stories of black resistance during slavery typically aren’t film material, let alone TV fodder.

“We’ve seen the victimization of black culture in America,” said Hodge. “This one, I feel with this story, we see the resurgence, the revolution, the strength of these people, and that’s something we need to see because today a lot of the younger generation who aren’t familiar, who aren’t getting the real education behind it. They don’t understand what to be proud of. They don’t know the foundation. They don’t see it.

“It’s important to tell the parts of the stories that we don’t know,” Hodge continued. “There’s a large portion of our history that I don’t even know. And I say our history meaning American history, which involves black Americans, enslaved Americans who built up this land’s economy and brought it to fruition to what it is today. A lot of it in school is whitewashed, and just, I don’t remember ever seeing it or understanding it as prominently when I was a child because it just wasn’t there.”

But the stars of Underground, a thriller about slaves plotting a 600-mile escape up North to freedom from a Georgia plantation, know that there will be some initial skepticism from those who say they’re tired of stories about slavery. Actor Alano Miller told The Root of his initial response when he heard what Underground was.

“At first, when it was pitched to me, it was ‘slave drama,’ and that made me cringe,” Miller said. “But then I read the script and the humanity; it was about the revolution. The writing was just so excellent; it had so much depth to it and it wasn’t one-dimensional.”