VSB Talks To Underground Directors Anthony Hemingway and Salli Richardson Whitfield

Courtesy of WGN
Courtesy of WGN

Black stories told by black people. A novel concept, I know. But here we are all the way in 2017, our year in the lawd Beyonce, and the idea that the folk best-equipped to tell the empowering, perfervid, often-complicated stories of the real-world and fictionalized experiences of black people would be other black people is still something that is deemed up for debate in Hollywood. When folk like Aaron Sorkin need to be reminded that the entertainment industry is in fact not a meritocracy and people of color have a harder time not only breaking into the industry but being given a chance to fail like their white-male counterparts you know we need to keep pushing the issue forward. I know, y’all. Duh City on top of Duh Mountain. Population:wypipo.


But it isn’t all bad news, bears. Black actors, screenwriters, producers and directors are experiencing something of a renaissance. Donald Glover’s popular show Atlanta won a Golden Globe for Best TV Series Comedy or Musical. At the same awards show, Issa Rae was nominated for her breakout lead role in HBO’s Insecure. She lost to Tracee Ellis Ross for her role in the hit ABC sitcom Blackish. And let’s not forget Jordan Peele and his movie that sparked a thousand think pieces. All of these titles include black creators building the fire upon black experiences, the under-achiever struggling to make it, the socially-awkward black girl with a heart of gold, the societal dangers of trusting Darth Becky. Our stories told our way. One show having a stellar year is WGN’s Underground which dramatizes a history you may think you know already but puts its thing down flips it and reverses it, breathing new life into a story that could have seemed cliche. VSB had the opportunity to speak with Underground series director Anthony Hemingway (Red Tails) and episodic director for this week’s episode, Salli Richardson Whitfield (Black Dynamite) on the importance of telling our own stories and what to expect from the rest of the season.

VSB: We are really enjoying this season of Underground!

Anthony Hemingway: Thank you so much, it’s definitely encouraging to hear and just seeing the reach that it’s getting and the success that it’s getting is something we don’t take very lightly. You know, we love the show so much and [we’re] so thankful that it’s landing.

VSB: The show certainly resonates with the black community and people in general. Last week’s episode “Ache” was nerve-wracking to say the least.

Courtesy of WGN

AH: Yeah. Amirah Vann and Jurnee Smollett-Bell made everything in my body ache watching it [Laughs] and just watching them dive into the truth and the depths of each of their characters it makes it so palpable and pulpy, it really draws you in and it’s one of the things that I love. They’re such amazing talents. We were so blessed to have them in those roles. To continue to find every element and opportunity to drag this forward into today and finding a way in making this resonate as a reintroduction to those of us who have a great understanding of our history and those who don’t. Especially this younger generation. We’re looking for every opportunity to really give us that fresh perspective that we need and helping us know what we need to grow. The strength we need to find and tap into today to resist.

VSB: You know, there are some in the black community who express something along the lines of exhaustion in the retelling of past black stories, specifically the chattel slavery period and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. How does a show like Underground overcome this hurdle and reinvent the genre?


AH: It’s just being aware and understanding what I feel is really necessary for us right here, right now, today. It’s one of the things that I feel that you know, the most important story in your life is the story you tell yourself and I think that if we continue to show and remind our brothers and sisters the strength and the worth that we have and the black humanity, you know we don’t have to sit back and be quiet. We are trying to find the voice of the oppressed and figure out what we have to do to find our strength and resist where we are. So for me it’s just finding those things —- opportunities in my purpose as a filmmaker and a young black man to speak to my black men, speak to my black sisters and let them know that there is a way, there is the possible. We don’t have to accept what we’re given or what we’re told. We all have a contribution to make. We all have a purpose.

VSB: Salli, Can you let us know what viewers can anticipate from this week’s episode, “Nok Aaut”?


Salli Richardson-Whitfield: My favorite character all along has been Cato so when I got this episode and it was really Cato’s story I was like, “Score!” and he’s (Alano Miller) such an amazing actor. You’re going to know so much more about Cato and what his hurts are, you know? I see him in this beautiful love story. It’s just a completely different side of him. I think it’s going to be an exciting episode because it’s completely different than a lot of the other episodes because it doesn’t take place on the plantation, really. And in the woods, and people running. It’s just something completely stand-alone and different.

VSB: Salli, I heard you actually showed up weeks early for production, is this correct?

SRW: Courtesy of WGN

I like to bathe myself in the show and get the rythym of the crew. So I flew myself in maybe a month before I was supposed to shoot and just observed Anthony. Wake up early, be there all day, that way when I get there i already know the crew. It helps me and gets me in a better rhythm. I’m not going to leave a scene until my actors give me what we need.


VSB: What was this experience like?

SRW: [Laughs]There was a lot going on—- you know—- Jurnee was pregnant and they were trying to shoot all around her. I really was given a lot more freedom, obviously sticking to Anthony’s style of what the show is, to go and do what I wanted to do. I felt very trusted by Anthony and Misha and Joe (Show creators Misha Green and Anthony Pokaski). They really trusted me to take care of their baby and shoot my vision and I think it turned out well.


VSB: Salli, Underground was not your first time directing. You actually directed an episode of Queen Sugar before this, correct?

SRW: Yes. It was two episodes, actually. And of course I have to direct the episode where my husband {Salli is married to Queen Sugar’s Dondre Whitfield} has to kiss our actress (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) for the first time and he was so worried about it. I said, “You better get to kissing! We gotta go!” [laughs]


VSB: What has this experience been like moving from in front of the camera to behind it?

SRW: I spoke with Ava Duvernay and she encouraged me to look beyond what I had been doing. I’ve worked consistently for thirty years and I started to get a little bored, honestly. I wanted more control as an artist. I can’t tell you how empowering it is to help other actor’s get great performances.


VSB: Why is it important for there to be people of color in the creative process?

SRW: Well, I think. This is why it is important for black people to be telling our stories. It’s easy for me as a black person to go on a white show because we are surrounded by the white experience. It’s harder for people of other nationalities to come in and direct the black experience because they are not cloaked in it every day. They do not know the little nuances of it.


On working with white directors…

SRW: As an actress I’ll be in things and the note they always give me is  “you seem a little… angry. Can you just be a little softer?” when I’m just talking to my girl the way I would talk in our culture and you have to live that. To tell the black experience sometimes you need to be black. ‘Cause you ain’t gonna understand it, otherwise.


On the importance of unapologetic blackness.

SRW: I’m going to use my daughter more as an example because we’re in uncharted territories or actually going back to the same crap… I don’t know what the world is going to be like for her. It would be very easy for my daughter to blend in (Salli is biracial with a white father) and not know who she is as a black woman. What I try to do with my daughter is make sure that she knows who she is because when she walks out into the real world they’re going to know and {I tell her} I need you to be ready for battle. She has to be prepared. Because they’ll expect you to be. My daughter already… in sixth grade… she wants to go to Spelman. I know who I am. A black woman and what those challenges are and I empower my daughter in those ways.


AH: It’s as simple as not being afraid to live my truth and being very proud in who I am. Being confident and fearless in a way of speaking and fighting for what I believe. Being not afraid to show sensitivity when sensitivity is needed. Not afraid to love when love is so necessary today and being able to be vulnerable. Knowing at the end of the day I am a man and a child of God and I stand firm and allow myself to be me.

VSB: Well here at VSB we like to say, “That’s the Blackest Thing That Ever Happened This Week” and so I’d just like to nominate you two.


AH: [Laughs] Aw. Well, thank you.

Underground airs every Wednesday at 10/9c on WGN

Jordan Kauwling is an early thirties Philadelphian but she tells everyone she's in her late thirties because she doesn't understand how math works. When she's not busy writing, singing, eating all the falafel or unsuccessfully finishing another craft project you can catch her talking junk on Twitter.



This show is soooo good! Never thought I'd be eagerly awaiting weekly episodes of a slave drama.

However, Amirah Vann's "W's" on the show are killing me. You could play a drinking game based on them. https://uploads.disquscdn.c…