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Why an Underground Railroad thriller resonates today

VOX – America’s history of slavery is often misunderstood and unrecognized, but WGN’s new series Underground is changing that as the first scripted drama to tell one of the many stories of people escaping slavery through the Underground Railroad. The series, which follows a group of seven runaway slaves fleeing a Georgia plantation, also tells that story with nods to the present.

 

It’s evident even in the show’s music: In the first scene, one of the main characters, Noah, runs through the Georgia woods with his breath matching the beat of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” from the artist’s 2013 album Yeezus.

 

In fact, Underground is as much a story about America’s past as its present, with an insightful eye on what it takes to create a better future.

 

But amid widespread national protests against systemic racial injustice, and Donald Trump’s polemical presidential bid to “make America great again,” the untold story of revolution in the hearts of runaway slaves provides a sobering mirror to the complex legacies of American history we still wrestle with. And people are ready to dive in: Underground has been a ratings success for the network and on social media, beginning with its March 9 premiere.

 

I spoke with two of the show’s stars — Aldis Hodge, who plays Noah, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who plays Rosalee — about why a show like Underground resonates with viewers today, and why it’s important to remember the people before us who took a stand to say, “This is not okay. We need to accept each other and understand ourselves as a culture, come together as a country once again.”

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Victoria Massie: What attracted you to the project?

 

Jurnee Smollett-Bell: You know, the fact that the Underground Railroad really hasn’t been told as a film or a television show really fascinated me. It’s such an incredible part of our history in which our people fought back and did take their lives into their own hands. For me, that was a story I wanted to be told.

 

Aldis Hodge: We’re familiar with the story subject, but we really don’t know much about it. And the way they told it — well, actually, the perception that we already have of it is very downtrodden. It’s just not great. But this story, it’s one that I saw where we exploited the good attributes and the awesome attributes of black culture in that tumultuous time where they were celebrated for their intelligence, their strength, their cunning.

 

We see them fight back, which is, for me, a first.

 

VM: Why do you think that this story resonates with viewers today?

 

AH: I think of this country today, there’s so much dissension and separation, segregation, that continues to be supported and recycled within our culture that we have to get back to a time of understanding that we have to revolt against it. We have to understand that it’s not relevant.

 

And when I say revolt, I don’t mean in a violent way or an aggressive way. But I mean, personally, making the decision to say, “This is not okay. We need to accept each other, and understand ourselves as a culture, come together as a country once again.”

 

JSB: I think we’re all tired of being sick and tired, and I think the very spirit of revolution that’s within the Rosalees, the Noahs, the Ernestines — that spirit to want more out of life — we have that today.

 

I think, though, we are still dealing with systemic injustices that we inherited from that time. We can’t deny it, as long as we are being denied fair trials, and there’s injustice in mass incarceration, and gun control affects us at higher rates, and poverty affects us at higher rates, and our kids are not being educated or not having the same access to quality education. These are things that we’ve inherited, because slavery was not that long ago, unfortunately.

 

My mother and father lived in the generation of the Jim Crow South. The Jim Crow South is the direct result of slavery. And historically we can’t deny that we’re fighting this same fight.

 

AH: [Slavery is] such an unsettled issue. We’re not yet ready to combat it because we have not accepted it and we haven’t dealt with the problems. We have not healed from this yet, because if you do a historical piece about Abe Lincoln and George Washington, no one bats an eye. It’s just … American history. You do a show about enslaved Americans, and everybody’s in an uproar. “Why this? Why this?” It’s because it’s a problem no one has really dealt with yet, and they still don’t want to deal with it.

 

VM: One of the things I appreciate about Rosalee and her evolution is how much of her power comes from the secrets she holds. Why are secrets so important?

 

JSB: I think one thing about men and women at the time is they weren’t allowed to be themselves. They had to pretend, to put on fake faces. And if they were in pain or frustrated, they weren’t allowed to show those emotions.

 

So with someone like Rosalee especially, working in the house, she’s constantly under the watchful eye of the mistress and the master. And so she learned how to suffocate what she’s really feeling inside and how to follow that up. And I think she does have a tremendous amount of strength that comes out in moments of desperation. And she picks and chooses when to use it.

 

It’s her nature. It’s her instinct. And yet she’s had to fight that her entire life. She’s had to play against her nature. And I think she’s at the turning point where that is no longer the cycle. It can no longer be silenced. And those dynamics are something that is fascinating as an artist to have play, because obedience is a very complicated beast. To get a human being to obey in all areas, and to get them to go against their nature, is a very complicated and psychological monster.

 

VM: In the first encounter between Rosalee and Noah, Noah says, “We’re all pretending in some way.” That theme carries throughout each episode. I was wondering if you could say a bit about why pretending is so important.

 

AH: I think playing pretend is necessary because, to a degree, when it comes to these games, I think physical violence is put up in the forefront to distract people. The biggest problem, the biggest tool that was executed by segregationists and racists, was mental manipulation.

 

If I could get you to believe that you were worth nothing, then you actually were worth nothing. If I could get you to think less of yourself, then I could control you. So I’m going to do a little magic show here to get you to lose focus, and throw all this unsound information your way and get you to believe in that, so that I can continue profiting and making my gains.

 

JSB: We come from such brilliant people. They were strategists. Really, that’s what it comes down to. It was all about strategy. How can I achieve what I want without risking you knowing what I want? The strategy of pretending is surviving.

 

Ernestine pretends that she’s content in her position. We all really are pretending that everything is fine. The elephant in the room is that we all know we’re supposed to be free. The elephant in the room we can’t acknowledge is we all have the desire to be free, and this is no kind of life, and we’re just trying to steal little pleasures.

 

They would steal little freedoms, steal little joys here and there. That’s why singing and music was such an integral part, because it’s survival. Even though they were in bondage, they were still trying to survive.

 

VM: One of the things I really enjoy about Underground is how the Macon 7 show that even when people have the same goal in mind, you have to deal with different personalities, different perspectives, and different investments in how you’re going to get there. Why is that necessary?

 

JSB: The nuance is important in understanding the complexity of who we were as a people and who we are today as a people. I think it’s the shades of gray that are interesting. Everyone has the same goal, but everyone approaches it differently, because we’re all different people. And I think at its core, Underground is trying to really explore what it means to be human, what it means to be free, and that’s not going to look the same for everyone.

 

AH: What we do with the show is give perspectives on enslaved Americans who didn’t believe they were worthy of being freed. There were enslaved Americans who wanted to be free but didn’t want to help anybody else. There were enslaved Americans who felt like they just had to sacrifice all for it. And some just didn’t care and said, This is the best I can do in life. There were enslaved Americans who said, There is more; however, this is the devil I know, so I’m gonna keep dancing with it, because the more that I want to get, I have to sacrifice for it, and I’m not willing to make that sacrifice. So I’m just gonna stay here. I know this evil here, and I know how to manage it; I’m gonna stay with this.

 

The compounding interests that are finding conflict within the group, fighting through that in itself, is its own energy, because we have to make sure to continually convince everybody on the team that we are on the same side, we’re all going toward the same goal.

 

VM: In Underground, the characters are running away because they’re finally giving in to their nature to be free. Could you say a bit about what Underground is saying to people about following their heart?

 

AH: Well, I think when anyone is not living a fulfilled life, in that they have a goal, they want it, but they don’t believe they can do it, they haven’t attempted to get it, you can see it. It weighs on you. It reflects on you outwardly. Just like Noah in that scene — [the stranger’s] like, “I can see the fire burning in your eyes” — [he’s really saying], “Yeah, I can see that you don’t believe in this reality. I can see that you believe you want to be free. You deserve it.” And Noah wears that. He wears it heavy because he fully believes it, but it is what he is. It is not an idea that he just conjured up. It’s an idea that he lives every single day. And he just has to go for it.

 

JSB: I think Underground, when you watch it, it makes you ask yourself what are the true meanings of being free? What’s the real definition of liberty? Of being your own person? And we live in an age of a bunch of following. We’re all following something. We’re all obeying something. And why are we? Do we even realize that we are?

 

One thing Joe [Pokaski] and Misha [Green], our creators, ask all the time is, “How active is your activism?” We can tweet out a hashtag, but what are we actually doing in our life to actually make real tangible change come about in the world? What is our contribution? And are we really active in that? We might have a cause that we’re passionate about, but what are we actually doing to further that cause? And I think it does make us take a look at our lives to look at what can I do to own my freedom more?

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