If you haven’t watched WGN’s “Underground”, I suggest watching it on the Internet or Cable Services from the beginning. It is part historical and part adventure story as a group of slaves try and escape to freedom from Georgia. The show contains great acting by both the “Good” and “Bad” guys and focuses on the spiritual and moral conflicts of the principal characters. It’s depiction of slavery is Historically accurate, and in the last part of the series , and in season two, several Historical people from the period are included, Harriet Tubman is portrayed in her role in the “Underground Railroad”, and “Bloody Patty”, Patty Cannon who terrorized Delaware and Maryland along the Eastern Shore leading the Cannon-Johnson Gang. Parts of the story are adopted from real life, like the escape of William and Ellen Craft , and a nod to Henry “Box” Brown who actually shipped himself in a crate to freedom.The show’s creators are Misha Green and Joe Pokaski.
The only downside? The music is awful. The decision to incorporate Hip-Hop music distracts, and cheapens the show. There is no shortage of period music from the era, written by the slaves themselves . While the lyrics were often written in allegory, to protect the slaves themselves from retribution, the music directors apparently felt the audience was too stupid to figure it out. The best known song was “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. One I remember finding once was something like “Black Pirate Mary”, which told the story of a black woman who raided the Plantations in Louisiana, killed the slavers, and added the former slaves to her pirate band.
A harrowing new period drama takes its cues from both history and the apocalyptic narratives that populate today’s TV and film.
…But the idea of escape, specifically a harrowing flight through hostile territory while under constant threat of death, is built into the foundation of America’s history. The flights of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people via the Underground Railroad and other efforts in the 18th and 19th centuries are themselves a story of escape from apocalyptic horrors, with many souls risking mutilation, death, disease, and unimaginable psychological trauma in their quest for freedom and a promised land.
Finally, television is exploring America’s most autobiographical apocalyptic quest story. WGN America’s Underground, which airs the final episode of its first season Wednesday night, is an epic series about slavery and escape created by the Heroeswriters Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and executive produced and scored by John Legend and his Get Lifted team. The entertainment industry has tackled the subject before—on television with Alex Haley’s landmark 1977 miniseries Rootsand its 2016 remake, and in film with 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained,and the upcoming Birth of a Nation, among others. But those treatments largely focused on the terrors of plantation life or on revenge fantasies. Underground, by contrast, provides historical fiction about the great flights that shaped American history, taking its cues as much from other weekly primetime thrillers as it does from the famous canon of slavery period pieces.
Underground’s main plot follows a group of escaping slaves known as the “Macon Seven,” whose members include Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Noah (Aldis Hodge), who inevitably become the show’s power couple as they lead their group north. Scenes cut between their journey, the Georgia plantation they escaped from, and the abolitionists at their destination in the Ohio River valley. Some episodes play out uncannily like The Walking Dead, only with single-minded slave catchers taking the place of zombies. Questing characters follow the video-game-inspired level-up process that’s become The Walking Dead’s key structure, with Rosalee and Noah evolving from naive co-conspirators to nearly unkillable wraiths over the course of the first season.
That isn’t to say that Underground is a total departure from its heavier slavery-film counterparts. Scenes back on the Macon plantation, anchored by Amirah Vann’s Ernestine, who’s the mother of Rosalee and the enslaved object of owner Tom Macon’s (Reed Diamond) desires, are as emotionally resonant and torturous as any scene in Roots. Enslaved people are beaten, mutilated, humiliated, stripped naked, and killed, all of which is generally shown in visceral detail. The show doesn’t shy away from the rampant sexual assault that defined plantation life, and it also does a good job of portraying how enslaved people carved out whatever spaces for survival they could. One of the advantages of it being a television series is that Underground has the space to explore the full depth of its enslaved characters: They are brilliant, petty, caring, peaceful, and violent at once, as are all people, and their daily interactions and individual stories have room to breathe and not be swallowed up by the need to sum up for audiences in a few hours just how awful American slavery was.
But the core of Underground is still the quest, which sets it apart as both a TV series and a work about slavery. It isn’t perfect. Some of the episodes require quite a good amount of suspended disbelief, and the Get Lifted team’s decision to incorporate modern music into the show—while a brilliant way to connect the dots in black history and culture across time—sometimes comes across as forced.Underground toes the line between fantasy and reality in a way that can be uncomfortable for historically minded viewers such as myself. But it’s off to a good start, and holds the mark as perhaps the most watchable and rewatchable media about slavery yet. For once, a show finally connects the real epic quests of blackness at the center of American identity with its penchant for fantasy apocalypses.