How the Election Made Slavery Drama ‘Underground’ So Painfully Relevant
The cast of WGN’s slavery drama ‘Underground’ explains how Trump’s election and the current political climate made their series timelier than they could have planned.
When WGN’s slave drama Underground premiered last spring, there was no shortage of compelling reasons to watch.
Its unflinching portrayal of the horrors inflicted on slaves in the Antebellum South demanded your attention. The breathless momentum with which it flung its lead characters, the Macon 7, on a daring, tense escape towards freedom—not to mention a modern-day soundtrack highlighted by the likes of John Legend, Kanye West, and The Weeknd—invigorated and intensified its dramatization of the beginnings of the Underground Railroad.
“We’re both genre people,” says Misha Green (Sons of Anarchy, Helix), who co-created Underground with Heroes and Daredevil alum Joe Pokaski. “So we always looked at this as an action-thriller, which is what the story of the Underground is. It’s about people who were spies. This is about taking the portrait of the wall and living in it in a contemporary time.”
Or, as co-executive producer and director Anthony Hemingway says, “We give platform to superheroes. It’s about creating a space that allows them to fly and really soar to the most extreme places.”
The season one finale ended with the surprise introduction of Harriet Tubman, played by Aisha Hinds, who proudly attaches the “superhero” label to the historical figure as well. But all the talk of superheroes and thrillers and “genre” certainly don’t overshadow the show’s more visceral power, which is employing all those things as a backdrop for humanizing these characters as they endure atrocities.
As The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk wrote, the show’s “main strength comes as a subtle subversion of works in the American screen canon on slavery, from Amistad to 12 Years a Slave. Unlike many of those films, this show’s ambition isn’t to provide the definitive contemporary commentary on race, slavery, and history, but to use the setting of slavery as a way to explore the kinds of arcs and themes common to most serials. The first season owed a debt to The Walking Dead as much as it did to Roots.”
Season two, however, also arrives amidst a much different political and cultural climate than existed when we watched season one.
In fact, the new season began filming in Savannah, Georgia, in September, when the presidential election and the country’s feelings about it were at the most volatile, and continued through Election Day to the end of November.
When Underground’s cast and creators sit down with The Daily Beast, it is just days after the Women’s March harnessed the nation’s distressed voices to become the largest one-day protest in U.S. history.
If the times in which we watch a historical drama colors the lens through which we watch it, then the Underground team is well aware of the impact its narrative will have on an audience today.
As Beyoncé’s “Freedom” blares in the opening moments of Wednesday’s season two premiere, it becomes impossible to ignore how Underground’s depiction of a fight and a movement in 1858 resonates so strongly right now.
Season two kicks off at a time in the U.S. when cultural tensions bristle so forcefully that the foundation for the Civil War is starting to be laid.
“What’s crazy is that we were shooting this all last year not knowing the change we were running up on,” Aldis Hodge, who plays Noah, a blacksmith who becomes a ringleader in the attempt to help fellow slaves escape.
“The season’s theme is citizen vs. soldier, and now we’re living that,” he says. “These people are living in this unjust society and they have to stand up and fight in the midst of a lot of other people who are comfortable and just want to be citizens. I think it resonates in an eerily symbolic way.”
Pokaski, who co-wrote the season two premiere, agrees. “We’re a very fractured country,” he says. “There are some people who feel very strongly towards liberty and justice and freedom, and there are some people who are trying to drag the world back. That’s something that’s been consistent since 1858.”
The season begins in the aftermath of the Macon 7’s daring escape from slavery. Noah, facing murder charges, finds himself back in captivity. His love, Rosalee, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, has tasted liberty and is hell-bent on not only freeing him again, but also joining her new friend Harriet Tubman on a mission to help other slaves.
Working with Rosalee on a dangerous plan to free Noah is abolitionist attorney John Hawkes (Marc Blucas), whose wife Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) is continuing her work turning their home into a station on the Underground Railroad. Elizabeth also joins a group of sharp-shooting female abolitionists that’s masquerading as a sewing circle, led by newcomer Jasika Nicole as Georgia.
In a way that seems all the more empowering, given that our conversations are taking place against the backdrop of the Women’s March, the season will focus more intensely on the female characters and their autonomy and bravery as they take matters into their own hands as badass revolutionaries.
“Far too often I read a script where the girls are the girlfriend, or the set dressing,” Smollett-Bell says. “But Rosalee, Ernestine, Elizabeth, Harriet, and all the women in Underground couldn’t be further from that. Not that they don’t fall in love. They fall madly in love. But there’s so much more to them than just that.”
So much of the show is personal for the actress. She remembers shooting one scene in particular from Wednesday night’s premiere. Rosalee is desperate to free Noah from prison, and, when she and lawyer John Hawkes hit a roadblock in court, she’s frustrated that he ever thought he had the power to free him by using the justice system.
“The frustration that I feel is that he’s so naïve,” she says. “He doesn’t understand that the justice system does not apply to men and women who look at us. There was a take where it really resonated and I broke down. Because more than ever did I realize, wow, there’s moments now when the justice system fails, fails my brothers and fails my sisters.”
It’s not that the show is suddenly relevant in a way that it wasn’t during season one.
Alano Miller, who plays slave driver Cato, recalls how conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and “the worth of a body,” he says, made the series a powerful disruptor in the television landscape when it premiered last spring. “This is a chance to reignite and continue the fire that’s already been set with the show.”
Seated next to him, Jasika Nicole, who plays “sewing circle” abolitionist Georgia, nods in agreement.
“I feel like it’s easy to look at stories that center around a slave narrative and say, ‘Wow, we’ve come so far. Look at all we’ve done. Things aren’t like that anymore.’ Now it feels like the stakes are even hotter than what was established then. Now we are talking about immigrants and we’re talking about LGBTQ rights and we’re talking about gender and we’re talking about reproductive rights and we’re talking about religion.”
She continues: “It just feels way bigger than this nice little story in a box: ‘We don’t have black people as slaves anymore, that’s great! Pat yourself on the back. We’ve come so far!’ This is a reminder that we haven’t. And we can’t rest until every person is enjoying their freedoms.”
The evolution of the message from season one to season two is something that almost every cast member brings up: That it’s not just about reminding us of our country’s past sins, but a call to arms in the face of barriers to progress as history repeats itself.
“This is actually a moment in history of heroes and heroines and our nation coming together against an atrocity,” Amirah Vann, who plays Rosalee’s mother, Ernestine, says. “It has the potential to help us redefine what it is to be a soldier today, looking back at how we did it before.”
Coming from the unique perspective of someone who watched season one of Underground as an audience member, but who arrives in season two playing one of American history’s most iconic figures in Harriet Tubman, Hinds argues that the way Underground employs the action-thriller genre and modern elements, especially music, to create a contemporary cinematic experience is invaluable in creating the show’s power to draft those, as her colleagues call them, soldiers.
“I think history is something we engage in with a little bit of resistance,” she says. “It either makes us feel depressed or it feels so dense that we can’t really wrap our heads around it, or it feels so disconnected from our current day that we can’t really connect to it. What the first season did is it married all of these components to make you feel like you're experiencing this thing of the past but you’re experiencing it right now.”
That it can be brutal, that it can hit close to home, that it can be uncomfortable and maybe even inspiring? That’s the point.
“We’re coming to see heroes,” Green says. “We’re coming to see the revolution. And the revolution isn’t always happy. It’s not always pretty. But it’s always satisfying.”