WGN America’s ambitious Underground hopes to move what most Americans know about the Underground Railroad well beyond some hazy recollections from history class.
The rending 10-episode drama — a three-year labor of love co-executive produced by John Legend and filmed in part on the Plantation Quarters at the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum — intertwines tales of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and souls who feel unbearably alone into an intense examination of race, economics, cowardice and courage anchored in the moral and fiscal morass that fostered slavery in 1857 America.
“One of the things we talked about from the beginning when we conceived the show is that this isn’t about the occupation,” says Underground co-creator Misha Green. “It’s about the revolution. It was the first integrated civil rights movement in America. This was such a desperate and dangerous time and it created desperate and dangerous people. But from the start, we said we also want to see the humanity of everyone — of those running, of those helping and of those going after them, as well.”
Central to the story is an interwoven assemblage of family units. Attorney John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) and his plucky wife Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) are Philadelphia-based and socially progressive, which catches the attention of abolitionist leader William Still (Chris Chalk). John’s politically ambitious brother Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) acquired wealth and Georgia plantation ownership via his socialite wife, Suzanna (Andrea Frankle). The Macons’ regal head house slave Ernestine (Amirah Vann) uses wisdom and cunning to keep her enslaved older children — bitter Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) and sheltered Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) — unscathed while angling to keep her youngest boy from seeing the cotton fields at all. August Pullman (Christopher Meloni) struggles to save his failing farm and pay for his ailing wife’s care while raising their befuddled preteen son.
The most engrossing “family” is comprised of the plantation’s slaves, a complex social structure in their own right, bookended by fiercely intelligent, freedom-hungry Noah (Aldis Hodge) and calculating slave driver Cato (Alano Miller).
“The way this show is exhibited is that we’re not pointing fingers,” says Hodge. “We understand what the obvious enemy is here, which is racism itself. We understand the humanity within which racism cultivates, and understand what’s wrong about it, why we need to fight it, who’s fighting against it and why, who’s not fighting against it and what they don’t understand. It’s more of an education — you get to see, and you get to engage and experience, as opposed to being put in a position where you are asked to make a choice.”
“These were all people who loved, they laughed, they had babies, they read the Bible, all these different things that were outside these unfortunate events,” adds Smollett-Bell. “It’s important to dive into that in order to really make them living, breathing people.”
Asked about the physical and emotional impact of portraying the actual run, Hodge exclaims, “It wore our bodies down. [But] none of us complained. We said, ‘We’re in the fire!’” “Just shooting in Baton Rouge, on the actual plantations, and the slave quarters at LSU makes it authentic without you even trying,” adds Smollett-Bell. “You’re in the mud. You’re in the swamps. You’ve got snakes and crocodiles right over there. Mosquitoes are attacking you. It was brutal. But you’re just left in awe of what they did. Real people sometimes ran 1,500 miles and didn’t have the ability to read or write, didn’t know how to read maps. They used stars, they used song, they used hymns and markings on a tree [all gorgeously rendered in the series]. It’s so inspiring.”
And, says Meloni — whose Pullman engages in an especially stirring battle of wits and wisdom with Ernestine — Underground’s message still simmers in the social complexities that divide us today.
“What is important and impressive about the whole piece is that whatever you see on this show — all of the gasps, all of the moments of heroism and all of the moments of duplicity and betrayal — I can point out a thousand moments right now where it’s happening with whatever social issue that is on the table and whatever side of the fence you’re on,” he says. “Whether it’s the president using executive action with gun control and some people saying it’s an infringement and some people going, ‘It’s about time!’ — at least he’s doing something and he’s stepping on a potential third rail. That’s what the abolitionists did.”
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10/9CT beginning March 9 on WGN America.