'Underground' Sneak: Heroic Slaves in a Story About Freedom Rarely Told in American History
Last month I was invited to Memphis, Tennessee to screen the first episode of the WGN Americas’ upcoming series “Underground”. Stepping off the plane and making my way through the airport, I felt as if I had been jolted back in time. Memphis is one of those places that seem to be frozen in a specific era, steps behind other cities across the country; especially a city like New York. The evening I arrived, I made my way to Blues City Café, a restaurant recommended by my hotel concierge. As I walked along the deathly quiet streets alone, I realized this was one of those rare places that forced you to slow down and really absorb what was happening around you.
The next evening, I made my way to the press screening which was held in the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is built around the former Lorraine Motel, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Walking up to the museum door, you see not only the balcony where MLK Jr. last stood, but also the room where his assassin hid. To say it was eerie is an understatement. I’d arrived at this particular place to see the first episode of a series surrounding the lives of slaves who lived on a Georgia plantation in 1857. Still, the ride that “Underground” took me on that evening was nothing like I had expected. Though I am anxious to share more of my thoughts on the first episode, I will wait until we get closer to the series premiere to share more.
Until then, here are some highlights from the panel of cast and creators, including, actors Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Alano Miller, Amirah Vann; creators, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, as well as producer Mike Jackson and the museum’s Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education, Dr. Noelle Trent.
On Coming to “Underground”
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: The way my agent described it was as a TV show about slavery. It wasn’t until I read the script that I thought, oh I get it, this is not what I thought it was. I wouldn’t have done this if it were something that we’ve seen before because it’s already been done and done well. What excited me so much about ”Underground” is that this is a narrative we haven’t seen. The Underground Railroad is a paragraph in our history books and the name that they mention is Harriet Tubman. And for me, it was incredibly exciting to see these stories played out. These are untold stories and voices that we have never heard from.
Alano Miller: I think I was with Jurnee on this because I thought, I don’t know if this is going to be possible. But obviously the script is just amazing. I think what made me feel great about it is that it wasn’t about victims. This was a group of people who were taking ownership. They were heroes, they were revolutionaries, and they were trying to break the mold. I think that’s a story that we just don’t tell. We have to change the perspective of slavery in a sense that it is something that greatness is born out of, as opposed to, we are just beaten and destroyed. So with that, Joe and Misha brilliantly throughout the series, just keep building these superheroes up.
Amirah Vann: Going though this tour after having now done season one, I’m so proud of what we overcame. I feel too often when I was coming up, all I heard were the horrors. That’s the only thing that was echoing in my spirit and in my mind. This time around, having been able to do this series, I heard more of the heroic side of it. The same story was being told, but I was like, oh my God, we overcame that, we built that, oh they fought for that, and they believed in that. There was hope, and that’s a beautiful thing and I want to pass it on.
On Knowing the History of the Underground Railroad.
Misha Green: I didn’t know much actually, like Jurnee said, there really is just a paragraph in our history books. I knew that it was an amazing story, but, the more we started researching it was like, truth is stranger than fiction. We couldn’t make up the stories we were reading, the ways that these people were fighting back. From the beginning we knew that this wasn’t about the occupation, it was about the revolution. And to know it was based in truth gave it a deeper meaning.
Joe Pokaski: I was a political science major, and all I knew about the Underground Railroad was that square you see. That was part of what really excited me about this project, was how ignorant I was to the experience. I remember thinking as a really stupid kid in junior high that if I was a slave I would just hook up with the Underground Railroad, and problem solved. What Misha and I learned as we researched, was that most slaves were either recaptured or killed; it was the hardest thing a human being could do. As a writer, you have to make up stories about people who are told they’re worthless, and put up against horrible odds. This is probably the most heroic story that has never been told in American History.
On the Key Themes In “Underground”
Misha Green: I think about what kind of world we are building for our children. I think that is definitely a theme that you see in the pilot and throughout the entire series; because I think that it’s something worth thinking about. And also, how active is you activism.
Continue reading at Shadow and Act.
Image: seen at the First-Look Screening and Panel Discussion for WGN America's "Underground" at the National Civil Rights Museum, on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015 in Memphis, Tenn. (Photo by Phillip Parker/Invision for WGN America/AP Images)