WGN America’s Underground Is Just an Average Slave Story

'Underground,' created by 'Heroes' co-writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, tells the story of a group of slaves plotting an escape.

by Brian Josephs
09 March 2016, 5:00am

Courtesy of WGN America

How many slave-based stories is one too many? To be fair, the narrative hasn't been that well-tread on television. The genre's claustrophobia comes the notoriety to silver screen adaptations have gotten. The Academy's irreverence toward people of color over the past few years stings more because of its acclaim for Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave the prior two years. And Sundance darling Birth of a Nation is probably going to be obsessed over during the next awards season. What's troubling isn't the production of slavery-based stories but the ignorance of other African-American narratives. Surely our tales our worthy when not attached to systemic victimization.

Underground isn't a slave story, but a thriller with slavery as the setting. Series creator Misha Green has a explanatory motto: "It's not about the occupation, it's about the revolution." Separating the two could be a tough ask. The occupation is an emotionally wrought piece of history. The revolution here draws fictional thrills from factual pain.

The brainchild of Heroes co-writers Green and Joe Pokaski, Underground tells the story of a group of slaves who must make a 600-mile trek through dangerous terrain to escape from a Georgia plantation. The revolution is sparked by Noah (Straight Outta Compton's MC Ren), who discovers a "map" to freedom after a failed escape attempt. This antebellum escape is likely aimed to play out in front of younger audiences.

Underground centers itself on action thrills rather than dramatic heft. Four episodes in, we don't know much about the crowded cast other than their motives and we still haven't taken the slaves out of the plantation. It's four episodes of stage-setting. One slave, recruited for his physical strength, loses a child, attacks a slave trader, and gets imprisoned in a box for that assault. Rosalee, a shy house slave played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, takes lashes for defending a child. Underground lurches forward as if those traumas are minor consequences, shockers in themselves instead of in service to the larger plot.

This is a standard point-A-to-point-B adventure story. But it's buttressed by its setting. Then, it could be argued that the show is mining real pain for entertainment. But at what point does it cross into exploitive territory, especially when trauma derives from reality?

Underground is flawed because it runs in place. And the anachronistic soundtrack doesn't help its case either. I get the point is to modernize a centuries-old tale, but The Weeknd just doesn't belong in the 1800s. But Underground doesn't come off as exploitive. While the characters arcs aren't engaging, the personalities themselves are palatable, and they engage in occasionally sharply written dialogue. It's clear characterization was a point of emphasis.

"We wanted to make sure that each of our enslaved people had agency," Green says."That they were characters who laughed and loved and cried and fought."

The characters are written well-enough to give some of the predictable plot elements — like Noah and Rosalee's budding romance and the slaves' inevitable skepticism of perilous escape plot — give Underground a sense of verve. The initial escape discussion scene works, in part, because of how the characters' worldviews are distinctive and viscerally expressed ("God ain't never say we was gon' be free in heaven," notes the preacher (Mykelti Williamson). The same's the case with Amirah Vann's Ernestine, the head house slave who's potentially the show's most compelling character. She's a mother more concerned with preservation over justice, Ermestine moral ambiguities feel convincingly humane; she imagines far worse possibilities — including one where she's put in a breeding farm where she's "forced to have a dozen babies I'll never get to hold" — in a revealing conversation.

Traits like these give Underground a sense of effervescence. Although the show isn't without its dramatic blows, the focus on the characters also trying to be under the circumstances. An overwrought slave narrative runs the risk of being limited to educational catharsis, which is essential, but when you're seeing brutalized bodies without emphasizing with the human beings. That's a problem when there's a predominantly white America (and Academy voting membership) who only attach blackness to pain. Slave narratives deserve to be told, but sometimes it's about the eyes that are watching them.

"Do we want every story to come out to be about slavery?" asks says Tia C. M. Tyree, a professor at Howard University's department of strategic, legal and management communications. "No, we are a dynamic people with a spectrum of stories and experiences to tell, but we can not shy away from telling what was the foundational story of our existence here in America."

Underground flaws don't come from lack of effort. The first season was shot at LSU's Rural Life Museum, a memorial of 18th and 19th century Louisiana where The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and the upcoming Roots reboot were shot. David Floyd, the museum's director and stalwart of its academic reputation, says that "99 percent" Underground is based on historical fact, including the costumes and replicated artifacts. The pieces are there. It's a matter of what the show does with them once it's finally off the plantation.

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