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Why WGN’s “Underground” Is Not Just Another Slavery Show

There is nothing entertaining about slavery. On its own the forced subjugation of an individual or group of people can amount to little more than brutality porn for sadists.  So why are films and TV shows about the enslavement of Africans in America so compelling and necessary? Freedom. The struggle and methods used to liberate the oppressed is the most important narrative that can be told, even outside the context of the American Slave trade. What made Mad Max:Fury Roade a hit was its own respective telling of a journey to freedom. But that was still a work of fiction. And even the films that have specifically dealt with American chattel slavery treated liberation as something that was granted, rather than taken. And that’s where WGN America’s new series “Underground” breaks the mold.

Set in the deep south of the 1800’s “Underground” follows a group of African-American slaves who decided to escape north via Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. But traveling hundreds of miles through hostile territory with only the most tenuous clues to guide your way amounts to Mission Impossible, and that’s exactly the approach that makes this show so damn engaging. As Noah (played by Aldis Hodge) and  Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell)  assemble a team and execute a plan to escape the brutality of their plantation you marvel at their collective stealth and cunning. There are no laser beam security grids, just overseers with guns and dogs, but the stakes are just as high. It’s get free or die trying.

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Rosalee tends to Noah’s wounds.

“Underground” premieres on Wednesday March 9th and WatchLOUD spoke with cast members Aldis Hodge, Journee Smollet-Belle, Executive Producers Anthony Hemingway and John Legend about the monumental task of bringing one of the most well known but under told American stories to television.

WatchLOUD: The very nature of this show is emotionally draining and at times physically disturbing. How did you leave everything on the set and not take it home with you? Or can you?

Jurnee Smollett-Bell: I don’t think it’s possible to leave everything on the set. You absolutely take it home with you. For this project we shot on real plantations in the deep south. There was something about the trees. In the scene where I take the punishment for my brother I keep thinking about “Strange fruit” and what those trees had seen. That’s not something I think we’ll ever shed, or even want to.

Aldis Hodge: That was a hard scene to watch…
JSB: Y’all were there for me though…

Aldis Hodge: You went through it. But it’s impossible to un-see anything. You’re acting but you realize this actually happened to people. They had souls, they were human beings and this is what they had to look forward to on a daily basis. It hits you a little bit. There’s a scene in the pilot where I’m walking around with the collar with cowbells. In between takes we’d have two minute setups and they’d ask me if I wanted to take it off and I said no I’m good. Let me just stay in it. It was demeaning, demoralizing and humiliating, and my crew didn’t do that. But to think that someone really had to walk around with this like cattle, your perspective on what slavery is and what you’ve been taught completely changes. So I decided to stay in it because I wanted to connect a little bit more. I didn’t want to break free for a moment. The more I connected to the character I was able to grow with it.

Anthony Hemingway: With anything that I do, it took a lot of prayer for guidance on where do I begin and how I approach this. I always like being part of material that has integrity and advances us as a whole and I think “Underground” does that. It definitely shines a light into a point in our history that answers a lot of questions. It fills a lot of holes and gaps in terms of knowing where we come from, the fabric of our lineage and all that stuff. “Underground” does a great job in celebrating the strength and courage and gives a great blueprint in what it takes and what it requires. We know we come from greatness and in this period we’re often saturated by the harshness of it. And not to say that’s not in here, but we also wanted to expose the greater side if you will. Exposing these heroes and giving them a platform. People will ask why we need another [slave show] but once they allow themselves to witness it and watch it they will understand why. These are stories we don’t get to see. It’s really respecting our ancestors and raising up our youth, giving them something positive to hang their coat on and visual present it in a new light.

The music in the show is purposefully modern, featuring tracks by Kanye West and The Weeknd, for example. Do you think that effects the narrative at all?

Aldis Hodge: I think that with the modern music and how it’s implemented I think they are making smart choices. The efficacy of that is that it brings in this generation and they can connect with that. Once they connect with that subliminally they connect with our scenes and the show and they don’t realize how much they’re learning. It builds a bridge between this generation who doesn’t have the same concept of slavery as generations before. The music is the blood pulse of any show.

Anthony Hemingway: Meesh and Joe (Creators Meesha Green and Joe Pokaski) wanted to be able to connect the dots and bridge the gaps, bring the past into the present, finding creative ways  to do that and music was definitely one way to do that. I wanted to present it with a canvas and a palette we’re not used to. Giving it a veneer that presents hope instead of depression. It added vibrance and color. Even for me your first instinct is “I know what this is, let me go here.” But we challenged ourselves to think out of the box and not stop at the question “is this accurate?”

John Legend: It was a creative choice we made as a team to get that Kanye song at the beginning of the opening scene and it lent so much urgency and set the tone musically for the entire show. It felt urgent, current and timeless. We felt like the story was really relevant and meaningful now so we didn’t want the music to make them feel like they were going to a museum. We wanted it to be fresh.

JSB: Music plays such an integral in the roles of these characters lives. The song is the map to freedom. The way men and women who were slaves used hymns and spirituals to communicate messages to each other and the there is a song that is a character in itself in the program.

Aldis Hodge: Music and singing was one of the few freedoms and luxuries they had. One of the few strengths and actual choices they could make. That’s why it was so key to their soul. Then to turn it into a weapon to fight against their shackles. How smart is that?

JSB: They were so smart in the way they used maps and stars without having a degree.

Aldis Hodge: I think Noah had a degree…

JSB: In 2016 Noah would be an engineer. These people were denied so many liberties and yet they were brilliant. And that’s one of things I love Underground celebrates without hitting it on the head every day. It shows How smart we’ve always been. Regardless of what you take from us we’re still going to find a way. That’s a side of our history the books don’t really talk about.

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Noah (Aldis Hodge) and Cato (Alano Miller).

There are moments that are unexpectedly humorous. How do you decide in a slave narrative when it’s ok to laugh?

Anthony Hemingway: We really wanted to find the humanity in this. They celebrated life, they didn’t only live in oppression. They had good times. Even for me I was like “This actually happened? They had a dance?” They had love stories. It was hard times but they had to find the hope together. And as we do today we try to smile through our down times in order to lift it up and stay encouraged.

Is it unfair to present hope in such a dire situation?

Anthony Hemingway: I’m a director that really deals with the psychology of the narrative and also the characters. So you have to take every moment and find the right beats, and continue to peal the layers back. As you walk through life tomorrow is not promised to any of us. They had hope and dreams. But like now it only takes one person to encourage and be the champion and pull together the squad. In anything there is hope so you ride that wave to want to see them freed. Hope is the common denominator. You have to want to achieve it.

How will you attract audiences used to reality TV and more soapy fair like “Empire”?

JSB: I think the tone of the show…we were watching it and even though we know what’s happening our cast is just so phenomenal. There were moments I got chills. It’s such powerful work that everyone is doing.

Aldis Hodge: Today’s audience is very smart and they’re hungry for really great content and they’re going to gravitate to something that is well made and well done. And that’s what we’ve done here. I have full faith that our audience will come to the table and enjoy it.

JSB: Our co-creator Meesha Green said 1857 was a desperate and dangerous time and it made for desperate and dangerous characters. And that’s the kind of television I like to watch. It has the feel of a thriller because we’re escaping.

Aldis Hodge:It’s an adventure ride but it gives you your drama. Your love, your heart, your happiness. It gives you a team to fight for.

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