Underground is a new series on WGN America centered on the planned escape of slaves from a Georgia plantation in 1857. Given the virtual absence of television series focused on American slavery since Roots in 1977, one can’t help but make comparisons. Underground is, obviously, a period drama, but unlike Roots, its production elements are decidedly modern.
The soundtrack is intense. The hopeful harmonies of Negro spirituals are married with dub step, and the restrained but heavy breathing of a fugitive slave is added to the bass line of a Kanye West song. This unexpected soundtrack and a few really fast, Tarantino-style camera zooms make Underground anything but an old school, made-for-TV slave narrative.
“Ain’t no fear like that you have for your child. Makes it so you can’t see straight.”
When it comes to the daily horrors of the southern plantation and its myriad assaults on humanity, the script of Episode 1 (The Macon 7) spares nothing, neither in dialogue nor in action. Largely through the eyes of Noah (Aldis Hodge) and Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), we quickly see a reality that makes a 600-mile, danger-filled escape on foot a chance worth taking—out of the fire of chattel bondage in the south into the frying pan of bounty hunters and a racial caste system up north.
The idealist white northerner and his crisis of conscience, his slave-owning brother down south, field hands and house servants, the carefree debutante in the big house, and the slave catcher all become elements of the Macon plantation’s ecosystem. Many reviewers will describe these characters as shallow and clichéd. Others will pick at inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the use of vernacular. Still others will point out how a possible budding romance is rooted in an outdated, Hollywood/romance novel trope of the dark and brooding man and the image of a fair beauty. These critiques may all be valid to varying degrees, but no matter what, WGN America will have me for the full 10-episode season, and here’s why.
“If [God’s] picked a side it ain’t ours.”
Nearly 40 years passed between the airing of Alex Haley’s Roots and 2015’s Book of Negroes. The latter mini-series was unable to create the national discussion that the former began in 1977. But with a full-season, dramatic series centered on escape, Underground has the potential to bring understanding to a new generation. If the network can help the audience find its way, and the series continues on the trajectory set by the first episode, Underground just may be a useful tool in our national understanding of and reckoning with the reality and the legacy of American slavery.