Salli Richardson-Whitfield On ‘Underground’s’ “Nok Aaut" & The Age Of The Black Female Director
The fourth episode of the second season of Underground, “Nok Aaut," directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield occurs at a crucial moment in history. Already embedded in the violate institution of slavery, 1858 sits two years before the South secedes from the Union, and one year prior to abolitionist John Brown’s infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry. Tensions among abolitionists and slaveholders are on the verge of bubbling over, and the characters of Underground are trying to determine where they fit in. We learn that Cato has returned to the States from Europe, where money afforded him the opportunity to live life as an aristocrat. However, we all know that money is no real balm for racism. It might soothe wounds, but it certainly does not heal. As Cato attempts to pull Noah into his twisted circus, we discover just how much or how little, Noah is willing to give up for his freedom and a life with Rosalee.
“Nok Aaut" also focuses on Elizabeth who, while still grieving the loss of her husband John, is trying to determine where she now fits in the movement for abolition. An encounter with some of John Brown’s men leads her to begin reassessing what tactics she is willing to take up for the cause. Ahead of the episode’s premiere, ESSENCE sat down with director Salli Richardson-Whitfield to chat about these characters, the powerful performances that drive Underground, and the current climate for Black female directors.
ESSENCE: Were you a fan of Underground prior stepping into the role of director? It’s such an incredible historical drama.
Salli Richardson-Whitfield: Oh yes. I had gone to the premiere of the pilot, and when I was going, it was funny because originally I was like, “I don’t wanna go see no slave movie.” (Laughing) I had that attitude. But, by the end of the pilot, I was like “Uh oh! This is about to be good.” We’re not victims in this series, and that’s what you think of when you consider what a series like this might be. It’s such a different way of telling this story. So, with that being said, yes, I had already seen all of the episodes. I just love everything about the show. I love the way they have the contemporary music mixed in because somehow it works. When you first hear about it you think, “How is this going to work? All of a sudden you have some hard hitting Kanye [West] and it works, and it rises, and it’s what makes it relevant for today and I think it’s what has pulled younger viewers in who maybe Underground would have been too period or dated for. It brings in a different audience. I just think everything about it works.
ESSENCE: Your most recent directorial credits have been on contemporary set shows like John Singleton’s BET series Rebel and Queen Sugar. Underground is really stepping back in time for you, so how did you prepare yourself to shed your twenty-first-century views and hone in on this nineteenth-century set project?
SRW: Well, I look at it as, the story is the story, and I just go with what that feeling is. I also do my research. It is important, especially on a show like this to have watched all the episodes. You really want to bathe yourself in that period, and what’s going on in that show, so you know the characters. So honestly, it’s more about knowing the characters, that’s really what it comes down to, that’s what people are watching. These actors are so good; it’s not like I need to come in there and tell them anything. They just need that third eye, someone to push them a little bit further and to know that they can. It was really wonderful working with Alano [Miller] who plays Cato. I know how good he is, but I was still able to sit there are go, “That’s not it yet, that’s not enough. Push it.” I know how far he can go because I watch the show. Sometimes you work with people, and they do a performance, and you go, “Well, we might as well go on, cuz it ain’t gonna get no better.” (Laughing) But, then you have these kind of actors where you go, “Oh that’s good, that would be good for somebody else, but we’re going to go further. You’re about to give me everything you’ve got in you, cuz I know it’s there.”
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