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Can 'Underground' Break Free of the Slave Narrative's Traditional Tropes?

'Underground' is a well-worn addition to the suddenly crowded genre of slave narrative.

by Brian Josephs
Mar 8 2016, 5:00pm

Courtesy of WGN America

One of the reasons that the all-white Oscars this year stung so much is that the awards ceremony has gone out of its way to laud critically acclaimed slave narratives. Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave both picked up Oscars in the past couple of years; Sundance darling Birth of a Nation currently seems likely to be obsessed over during the next awards season. What's troubling isn't that slave-based stories are getting attention, but that other African-American narratives aren't. Surely our tales are worthy when they're not attached to systemic victimization.

That said, Underground, a new WGN America show, isn't so much a slave story, but a thriller with slavery as the setting. Series creator Misha Green has an explanatory motto: "It's not about the occupation, it's about the revolution." Separating the two could be a tough ask. The occupation here is an emotionally wrought piece of history, and the revolution 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 Aldis Hodge), who discovers a "map" to freedom after a failed escape attempt. It adds up to a standard point-A-to-point-B adventure story that's buttressed by its setting.

Underground centers itself on action thrills rather than dramatic heft. But so far, it's not clear what the action is going to add up to. Four episodes in and nearly halfway into the season, we haven't taken the crowded cast out of the plantation. 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, is lashed for defending a child. Those incidents, while brutal, still feel like they're low-stakes, as if they're shockers in and of themselves instead of in service of a larger plot.

The cast of 'Underground.' Photo courtesy of WGN America

Thankfully, even when the show seems to be spinning its wheels, the characters remain well-rounded and sharply written and acted. You see that in an early discussion about the escape and with Amirah Vann's Ernestine, the head house slave, who might be the most absorbing character on the show. A mother more concerned with preservation than justice, Ermestine's moral ambiguities feel convincingly human; the scene where she imagines far worse possibilities—including being put in a breeding farm where she's "forced to have a dozen babies I'll never get to hold"—in a revealing conversation is an early standout.

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

An overwrought slave narrative runs the risk of being limited to educational catharsis, which is essential, but not at the expense of seeing brutalized bodies without empathizing on a human level. That's a problem when there's a predominantly white America (and Academy voting membership) that attaches blackness only 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?" asked 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 cannot shy away from telling what was the foundational story of our existence here in America."

Underground's 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 scenes from 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, said that "99 percent" of 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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Underground premieres Wednesday at March 9 at 10 PM EST/9 PM Central on WGN America.