“Heard it all before.” Admittedly, that was my initial reaction when hearing of a new TV slave drama. “Heard it all before – how many more slave dramas do we need?” It wasn’t until I was challenged to recount the slave TV dramas I remember did I realize I had not seen nearly as many as I felt I had. Maybe because the stories are so heavy that they weigh on viewers longer than a show with more levity; perhaps because Roots and other historical portrayals are so iconic they seem all-encompassing of America’s history of slavery. Maybe Quentin Tarantino and the positive reception of a man I find rather revolting jaded me to any new dramatization of slavery. Regardless, I was wrong, and I hadn’t seen it all before.
As it turns out, Underground, premiering on WGN, will actually be the first major TV drama telling the story of the Underground Railroad. If that isn’t surprising to you, it sure as hell was for me as I racked my brain only to recall the episode of A Different World where a dilapidated wall gave way to a tunnel’s discovery. We haven’t seen a drama about the Underground Railroad? And now we’ll have one? Suddenly my outlook on this show’s potential had changed, and only rose higher from there. What I saw in Underground was not a typical slave story of pain and oppression. It has those elements, of course – addressing slavery without it would be insultingly remiss, like the recently pulled children’s book about George Washington’s cook – but rather than focus on those elements, or finding a savior in the law, or God, or the mercy of progressive whites finding humanity, Underground is a story of self-liberation.
Underground is a story of self-liberation, and a celebration of Black strength in the direst circumstance. It’s one of real-life hope and triumph against the most perilous danger in the way that real life, at its extremes, is more unbelievable than fiction. How have we not seen this before?
Written by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, Underground follows the bold escape North while capturing the nuance of the plantation by focusing on the dynamics both within and between house slaves, field slaves, and whites in the 19th century. The star cast includes Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Friday Night Lights, The Great Debaters) as a house slave who will be pushed beyond the relative safety of her position, opposite Aldis Hodge (Leverage, Turn) as a restless leader ready to die for his freedom.
My name is Noah. I am a slave.https://t.co/qSOXTGab0m
— Underground (@UndergroundWGN) January 16, 2016
There are certain themes we can undoubtedly expect by nature of an escape story – bravery over fear, courage over hopelessness, the horrors of oppression and the willingness to die – which gives Underground the challenge to tell the escape with enough creativity to capture those viewers jaded with more typical portrayals of slavery. It’s clear one such means will be the series soundtrack as Kanye plays from the start, the dark and upbeat “Black Skinheads” pacing an opening runaway.
Underground promises to be an intense and thoughtful portrayal of Black liberation, and as the first scripted TV series to cover the Underground Railroad, both standards are expectations are high. Fortunately, all signs point to this series meeting the bar. Underground premieres commercial-free on WGN tonight, March 9th at 10PM. BNP also interviewed the cast to learn more about the series – follow us on Facebook and Twitter for continued coverage of Underground, and join our live tweet as we discuss the show on Twitter.