Shifting the Perspective on the Story of Slavery
The excellent new show “Underground” shows the oppression and brutality of slavery, and at the same time, draws a parallel straight through to the racial injustices present in America today.
American slavery has been depicted in film and on TV nearly as long as the medium has been in existence. Starting in 1915 with D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” through to 1977 with television’s “Roots” and as recent as 2013 with the Academy Award winning Best Picture “12 Years A Slave,” audiences are very familiar with the brutality, inhumanity and horror of slavery. Less commonly told is the story of slaves who risked death by attempting to escape, many of them using the Underground Railroad.
Now, we have that story in the excellent new show on WGN called “Underground.”
For those who have not seen the show, here is your spoiler alert!
“Underground” is a ten episode series that takes place in Antebellum Georgia on a cotton plantation called Macon. The story centers on the plantation slaves who plan a daring escape to the north using the 600 mile Underground Railroad. Much like the classic prison break movie “The Great Escape,” each slave character has a unique skill that enables them all to execute the plan as a whole. Aldis Hodge is Noah, the restless and inspired leader of the plan. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays a house slave named Rosalee who is much tougher than meets the eye. Adina Porter is Pearly Mae, and her husband Moses is played by Mykelti Williamson. The possibly untrustworthy slave overseer Cato is Alano Miller, Johnny Ray Gill is Sam, Theodus Crane is Zeke, and Renwick Scott is Henry. Amirah Vann plays Ernestine, the cunning head house slave and mother of Rosalee, Sam, and six year old James. The white plantation owners Tom and Suzanna Macon are played with disaffected coldness by Reed Diamond and Andrea Frankle respectively. There are two abolitionists, John and Elizabeth Hawkes (Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw), and one morally ambiguous slave hunter named August Pullman played by Chris Meloni. The first three episodes set up the escape plan, and introduce the interconnecting plots of the lives of the owners and slaves. The fourth episode called “Firefly” puts the whole escape into motion.
Last week, AndACTION worked with Color of Change to participate in the official “Underground” live-tweet with cast members, creators, and an enthusiastic audience for the the “Firefly” episode. Color of Change is a trusted and proven leader in racial justice, and we were interested in seeing how we could connect the “Underground” audience to their work. We started by pointing to some incisive quotes from the show’s creator and television and social critics about the depiction of slavery on film and TV, because we were curious if the audience was making the connection that this show is different.
Sure enough, the Twitter audience passionately illustrated how much they have been wanting this story and these characters. The way the show represents the desire for freedom in the face of oppression and brutality, and then depicts the characters pursuing that freedom, draws a parallel straight through to the racial injustices present in America today. In a direct nod to the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the character of Pearly Mae protects her fleeing husband and daughter by facing the raised gun of the slave hunter Pullman, standing with her hands up, then dropping to her knees in sacrifice. It is a powerful and chilling moment.
Another story in this episode centered on a runaway slave named Josey played by Jussie Smollett. Josey holds the abolitionist couple John and Elizabeth Hawkes hostage for revenge in the taking of his wife Temperance from the plantation where they were together. Josey is seething with pain and rage, and forces Elizabeth to whip John to get him to explain what happened to Tempy. The audience picked right up on the connection between the trauma of slavery and institutional racism, and how it affects our racial justice in the present day. Black Lives Matter and racial justice activist Johnetta Elzie tweeted about a connection to rioting.
At the end of this very harrowing episode, Cato, the black slave driver, kills the two white field overseers, sets the cotton fields on fire, and screams at the slaves to run. The fire serves as both a distraction for the escape, and an act of vengeance against the Macons. By decimating the cotton, the slaves leave them with a season’s total loss of income, and no one to work to rebuild.
We are happy to see this kind of storytelling rise in cultural popularity, and believe it is a great opportunity for a wide range of nonprofits to get involved. While there is a place for all stories that educate the public about the horrors of slavery, we also sense a shift toward more empowering narratives. The much talked about Sundance film “The Birth of a Nation” about the Nat Turner slave rebellion (written, directed and starring Nate Parker) will be released later this year. Until then, we will be watching and live tweeting “Underground.” Please join us!