Underground: A Stellar Slave Tale Even if You’re Slaved Out


Whenever I hear skinfolk exclaim that they are exhausted by slave-related stories, my immediate reaction traditionally is to extend to them the invitation to shut their black asses up. About a year ago, though, I inadvertently behaved like the kind of people I have written about. The kind who more or less profess to be “slaved out.”


I received an email from a publicist about a new WGN America series titled Underground. The show was described as a 10-episode, hourlong vehicle that would take “viewers on a pulse-pounding journey with revolutionaries of the Underground Railroad and [tell] the unflinching story of a group of courageous men and women who band together for the fight of their lives—for their families, their future and their freedom.”

I put my fist in the air, but I wasn’t ready to commit.

Underground, which debuted last March, enjoyed record-breaking ratings for WGN America (pushing its average ratings up 1,000 percent) and managed to perform well through the season finale. Clearly, it built a sizable and committed fan base for a reason. Even so, I told myself that I would get to it when I got to it—like a student loan payment from time to time.

I didn’t make a real effort to watch the show until days after Sweet Potato Saddam was elected president. I lasted all of seven minutes before I turned it off and continued my timeout from white folks. I didn’t want to disappoint Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who stars as Rosalee on the show and whom I have adored since the short-lived On Our Own and the impeccable Eve’s Bayou. Same for John Legend, who serves as an executive producer and will appear on camera in the second season.

But hey, they’re black; I’m sure they could understand. In hindsight, I now have a better understanding of why some may be reluctant to watch anything slavery-related. As much as slavery is a part of American history, asking marginalized people to revisit past trauma as they grapple with their own is a lot. Wanting to not revisit certain aspects of history when solely trying to be entertained does not mean one is disregarding it completely.

That said, after having finally watched the first season of Underground, I can admit that I have cheated myself.


The show is fantastic. The acting is phenomenal. The scripts are well-written. Everything is well-shot, and there are little details found in each episode that suggest a lot of thought went into making this show as authentic as possible.

Also, what makes Underground different from most slavery-themed works is that while the realities of slavery are not glossed over, in terms of narrative, this show is much more akin to your typical television drama than it is to 12 Years a Slave. As The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II notes of Underground, “The first season owed a debt to The Walking Dead as much as it did to Roots.”


And in an interview with Newkirk, Legend had this to say about critics who argue we may be overwrought with slave narratives:

People talk to us about it, and I know it was a concern that was brought up. But I knew the focus of this show wasn’t just to have another portrayal of the misery of slavery, but to show the power of resistance, the power of fighting for freedom, and the inspiration it can give all of us now. No one wants to wallow in the toughest parts of slavery for a five-season series. That would’ve been a hard thing for me to sell, and I didn’t want to sell that kind of show.


All of Legend’s remarks ring true, though there is something else that makes this show sparkle in a way that’s different from other slave-centered films and television specials I have seen.

Take my favorite character, Ernestine, played by Amirah Vann. Although she functions in the house as both mammy and mistress, you also see her as this person in control as much as possible, given the circumstances. You understand why she does the things she does even when she appears to be in the wrong. You come to learn why she acts in certain ways, why it’s so important for the survival of her and her kids, and all of it makes you want to root for her.


In the season 2 opener, while you see Ernestine struggle with being sold to another plantation, you see she still finds a way to show her sexuality outside of appeasement to her master. You also see what happens to her now that she is broken, alone and lost.

There is misery there, but there’s a humanity pronounced in her character and, by extension, all of the other characters. And though sometimes it’s somewhat unexpected (yet it works) to watch slaves dance to tracks from contemporary acts like the Weeknd, even that shows black people making the most of a terrible situation. Seeing those bits of joy and life on Underground makes all the difference because, honestly, I couldn’t take 10 hours of “Massa beat me” when I have to deal with Minute Maid Mao wrecking my morning with each new tweet.


Put it like this: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III might love the Confederacy, but he wouldn’t get jiggy with this show. Ben Carson apparently has no idea what slavery is, so he’d call it a great immigrant story featuring nice white people he hopes will give him another job he has no business having.

Seriously, I know many have been wary, but if you have not watched Underground already, hurry up and catch up. It is one of the finest shows on television and deserves all the attention it can get. I must also note that this show has managed to reunite me with WGN America, a network I have not watched since The Bozo Show.


Season 2 of Underground premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT on WGN America.

Michael Arceneaux is the author of "I Can't Date Jesus," which will be released July 24, 2018 by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, but go ahead and pre-order it now.



It seems to dramatize things a bit for the sake of entertainment, but I guess that probably isn’t so bad.

So long as a generally correct flow of history remains, it seems like on balance it would be a good thing. I think trying to sell “A planned 5 year series that will basically be an episodic version of 12 Years a Slave” on the merits of it being “more realistic” would be impossible given the demands of cable television.

WGN isn’t a passion project for the person sinking money into it, after all. It’s a network operating in a very competitive, tough space trying to turn a profit.

It’s gotta sell a product that let’s a broader swathe of viewers than those who enjoy consuming Oscar-bait movies have a pretty steady diet of moments of triumph, joy and humor mixed in with the miserable realities of the premise of the story.