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?
JSB: When we first see her, she’s saturated in this world of the plantation. She’s deeply brainwashed in believing that she’s supposed to put her head down and do her work and be grateful that she works in the house and she’s not working in the fields. But, deep down inside, she doesn’t fit into the house. She’s under the watchful eye of the mistress, and she really envies the field hands because they at least have some sort of community. They have built something together, and she doesn’t have that in the house; she’s an outsider; she doesn’t fit in the house or in the fields.
One of the most tragic things about slavery was the mental enslavement, the way they made us believe that we were worth nothing; and that’s what she’s fighting against. She’s starting to dream, and dreaming was the most dangerous thing you could do as a woman in this time. And a few things happen to her in the pilot [first episode] where this strength comes out, and it’s surprising to everyone and to herself. It’s not a calculated strength; it’s the strength that’s always been in there, and that’s the strength of disobedience when it comes to protecting her brother in one instance, and we’ll see that. We will see her turn into a different person by the end of the first season; you know, she really grows leaps and bounds, and the strength that was brewing inside of her really takes her far.
TR: During the whipping scene, did it make a difference knowing a black director like Anthony Hemingway was behind the camera? Was it a safer space?
JSB: I don’t know if it was because he was black or not, because Kevin, our DP [director of photography/cinematographer], was not, and it was safe having him shoot. But I absolutely felt safe in Anthony’s hands in the scene where I do get flogged. I say this all the time—I think that was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I talked about it too much with Misha and Joe [Pokaski, the series co-creator] and Anthony. When we rehearsed it, it got to the point I was so frustrated that it felt like [the performance] wasn’t [where it needed to be] the weeks leading up to having to shoot [the scene].
And on the day of shooting it, we just didn’t talk about it, and I just asked Anthony, “Don’t let me hear the whip until I actually have to do it.” And when it came time for me to do it, we didn’t rehearse; we did it. He just kept the camera running, and we did it over and over, and I just prayed for the spirit to use me as a vessel, and I kept hearing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” You know, like, the trees just reminded me of that—like, what have they seen?
And afterwards, Anthony, Misha, Aldis Hodge [who plays Noah] and Amirah Vann [who plays Rosalee’s mother, Ernestine] just surrounded me. I couldn’t stop crying for, like, eight to 10 minutes, and I was just, like, shaking. The amount of pain, like having to go to that place of darkness and having to go to that place of pain that all the Rosalees of the world have experienced, really overwhelmed me. Again, it was a safe environment, and they allowed me to feel that pain that I felt without judging it, and I felt safe enough to go there because I knew I could fall back on them once I was done.
TR: Why is Underground important? Why do these stories matter?
JSB: There’s a level of shame attached to our history, and we need to replace that shame with pride and own our history. These are our superheroes. These are our people, and I would love to see us own this side of our history with pride.
Editor’s note: The WGN America series Underground premieres Wednesday, March 9, at 10 p.m. EST.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.