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?”

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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.

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“[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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

One of the show’s producers, Oscar-winning musician John Legend, told The Root why he was attracted to the project.

“I was excited by the idea of telling this particular story that hadn’t been told before,” Legend said. “We hear about the Underground Railroad a bit in our history books as kids; we know a little bit of the story of Harriet Tubman, but we’ve never seen a television series or a film where they tackle it in this way. And for it to be a full-fledged series where you get to know the characters in such depth.”

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The depth of the series, as well as its writing, is what won over most of the actors participating in Underground. Smollett-Bell raved about show creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, who created characters like hers, Rosalee, that are “layered and complex.”

“She’s not set dressing,” Smollett-Bell said of her character. “She’s fleshed out.”

I saw the first episode of Underground, and it’s true that the characters are rich and nuanced, as well as relatable in the face of the horrors of slavery. There’s a real sense of peril and that anything could happen to the characters at any given time because of the cruelty and immorality of their precarious situation. Hodge, Miller and Smollett-Bell all stand out for their roles, respectively, as the ambitious Noah, the calculating Cato and the resilient, self-sacrificing Rosalee.

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It is, at times, not an easy series to watch because of its dedication to realism. The slavers are cruel and banal in their indifference; the n-word is thrown around, used in its original intent, to demean and dehumanize; and it’s not easy to watch and be reminded of the bondage of our ancestors, who were treated as property that could be abused or discarded, sold or bred for profit like animals. But Underground wouldn’t be true to its history if it did not include the tragedy of slavery in a show meant to depict one group of slaves’ efforts to triumph over it. 

There’s enough of sugarcoating and hand-holding over race issues in this country. Underground throws all that aside and tries to get at the truth of the “first integrated civil rights movement,” the Underground Railroad, where whites and blacks worked together to liberate fleeing slaves. It’s a moving enterprise, and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds as a weekly series on WGN.