What do you tell your kids about the history of slavery in the United States? In recent years we’ve seen Hollywood’s perspective on history, telling stories from The Help to 12 Years a Slave with the perspective of Blacks as victims, inferior, or struggling to get by unless aided by a white savior.
However, in early 2016, WGN America’s new series “Underground” is looking to change pop culture’s perspective on slavery, while serving as a catalyst for discussion about Black history, self-perception, and where to go from here.
“The spirit of revolution was always with us,” shared Jurnee Smollett-Bell about the project who plays a lead role as Rosalee in the upcoming drama series. “Underground” centers on a group of slaves who take part in a bold and courageous 600-mile escape north to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
The show’s cast and creators shared exclusive content with the National Association of Black Journalists earlier this month and answered questions about the impact this show sets to make in popular culture, individuals, and families.
The series goes beyond the limits of history books and shows the pain, determination, and obstacles plantation slaves endured on an 1850’s Macon, Georgia plantation. For further depth, several members of the cast along with show creator Misha Green researched real slave narratives to develop characters with substance and heroism.
“We are finally coming from a point of strength. My family dealt with hard times but fought through,” said Aldis Hodge whose character Noah inspired him in his personal life. “It makes me appreciate my mother,” he adds. “I admire my character and hope it transfers onto the audience to treat each other with positivity and fairness.”
While other stories, films and shows have opted for certain angles on slavery, Green shared that the show’s topics are what they refuse to sweep under the rug.
“We find that we’re not as far as we are yet,” said Joe Pokaski, creator and executive producer, regarding the progress of race relations in America. That’s something they kept in mind as they went through the year-long process of developing this unique series.”
So far the show has been gaining traction and it has been confirmed that Academy Award winner John Legend has signed on to the show as an executive producer along with Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius of his production team Get Lifted. Together they will also be overseeing the musical elements of the series.
To keep the forward progress of the discussion of race in America, the cast and producers of “Underground” encourage families to watch it together. “Absolutely…the parents should explain the context of what’s going on within the show,” suggested Smollett-Bell, whose parents encouraged her and her siblings to read and learn about Black history outside of the traditional school setting while growing up.
“The family is the knit,” shared Alano Miller, who stars as Cato, “on the importance of keeping family together”—another theme of the show. “There’s a goal at the end of this thing. We have to reeducate and then slowly break the bonds [of oppression] and rejoice.”
Miller added that children’s perspectives and stories are shared in “Underground” as well to give the younger viewers a chance to see heroes who look like them and make a stand for their family and their community. “We take risks by being honest [in a way] that’s digestible…a pedestal to give children insight,” shared Aldis Hodge.
Overall the cast and show developers are confident that “Underground” will do what it is setting out to do: to bring humanity to the untold heroes who were courageous enough to break free from the bondage of slavery for a better life. As Pokaski shared, the show’s theme of discussion for us all who watch is “what kind of world are we going to leave our children?”
You can learn more about “Underground” before its premiere in 2016 by following the series on social media at @UndergroundWGN.
BMWK, how much do you know about the history of the Underground Railroad?