WGN America’s acclaimed civil rights series Underground is about to teach you more about the heart and soul of Harriet Tubman than you ever learned in history class.
In the final scene of Season 1, the famed abolitionist and humanitarian — played by Under the Dome’s Aisha Hinds — encountered Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s escaped slave Rosalee, who’d been separated from her love, Noah (Hidden Figures‘ Aldis Hodge). This season Tubman is a fully realized force in the fractured world of the Macon 7, their allies and enemies. Embodying the civil rights icon, says Hinds, “elevated me in my spiritual life, it elevated me mentally and emotionally, because essentially, she had already done the work.
“She didn’t have a degree in botany or theology or astrology and yet she was able to read the stars in order to chart her course,” Hinds continues. “She was able to observe plant life to know what trees would lead her to paths from the south to the north that she had never taken before. She was able to tap into a theology that wasn’t informed by reading the Bible because she could not even read.” And Tubman traveled under cover of darkness not only to help hide her precious human cargo, but to veil the seizures and narcolepsy she battled following a childhood head injury.
Tubman’s mentorship completes Rosalee’s evolution into a full-fledged warrior ready to “run toward danger,” says Smollett-Bell. “Rosalee is on a mission. The past few months, Noah’s been in jail and I’ve been on the road training with Harriet, transferring cargo from one station to the next, really trying to learn the complex network that was the Underground Railroad.”
Though Tubman wants her protégé to focus on saving her kin, “NoahLee” fans know Rosalee’s not going anywhere without her man. Especially when he’s facing the gallows. “My ultimate mission is to run back those 600 miles and get my mother and brother,” Smollett-Bell explains. “Before doing that, I want to rescue Noah. Harriet doesn’t agree with that plan at first, because she doesn’t understand the depth of our love and what we’ve been through and why I am so desperate to get him back. She’s not going to leave him behind.”
“He’s seeing Rosalee become the person that he saw inside of her in the first season,” Hodge smiles of his first glimpse of his onscreen love’s bold new ways. “He’s seeing that mature and materialize. She’s his ride-or-die — and in this case, he might die. … Some people are going to be shocked. Some people are going to be upset. Some people are going to say, ‘Hey, look, this can never happen again.’ If that’s your reaction, then I’ve done my job.”
But, adds Amirah Vann, who plays Rosalee’s mom Ernestine, there are softer lessons, too. Especially as the grieving mother learns to navigate a harsh new reality.
“To me, the second season is so much about understanding grace,” Vann says of Ernestine, who murdered her lover/employer Tom Macon in the Season 1 finale and was betrayed by his jealous wife. “Ernestine was taught the rules of this horrific system and said, ‘How can I try to manipulate the system to better the lives of my children?’ And they awaken into her this idea of life — and in that life you have to forgive, to have compassion. In that life, you have to realize that the woman who has sent you to be sold is hurting and is trapped as well. The only way to get off that wall is to grab onto the people next to you and you all get up at the same time.”
One of many lessons the Underground cast hopes will be reflected in the actions of its audience. “I know for a fact that there are many Harriet Tubmans littered throughout this country that need to inspire and to awaken so that we can move through the obstacles that we have now,” Hinds smiles.
Underground Season 2 airs Wednesdays at 10/9c beginning March 8 on WGN America