Review

The slave escape drama 'Underground' is a flawed but important retelling of America's original sin

The Underground Railroad.

Those three words tell you everything you need to know about what Hollywood's diversity problem really means.

If slavery is this nation's original sin, the Underground Railroad, through which thousands of slaves moved to freedom, is its first truly American hero tale. This was not a group of courageous colonists railing against occupying troops and a distant monarchy; these were Americans, some legally citizens, some not, risking their lives to transform a nation.

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Yet when was the last time you saw a film or television series about the Underground Railroad? The 1978 TV movie “A Woman Called Moses” starring Ms. Cicely Tyson?

The push for freedom nudged at this year's “Mercy Street,” but the show itself revolved around a Union hospital. And while Oscar-tempting biopics recently examined the lives of Dalton Trumbo, Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, Maggie Thatcher, Cheryl Strayed and Whitey Bulger, there have been exactly no recent feature films about the Underground's “father” William Still or even Harriet Tubman (an HBO film starring Viola Davis is, praise heaven, in the works.)

Even recent Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave,” like “Django Unchained” before it, was, in essence, the dark opposite of an Underground Railroad tale.

It's tempting to say that this is about to change with the new WGN America series “Underground,” but it is only one series on a network many still have trouble locating on their provider lists.

It's also a series that, having chosen to both defy the conventions of period television and wallow in them, takes several hours to find its footing.

Focusing on a group of slaves determined to make a run for freedom, creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski infuse “Underground” with a clever, proactive energy — the clandestine meetings, the intricate plans, the intra-team tensions — more traditionally found in heist films and shows involving the CIA. But they also waste a lot of precious time “proving” something we already know: Slavery was terrible.

The series opens with Noah (Aldis Hodge) being chased down, and then marched back in sadistically elaborate fetters, to the Georgia plantation to which he belongs.

Despite the horrifying conditions of his capture and punishment, it is not a defeat. He has returned to organize a larger escape.

This is no wistful, wild dream; even after being beaten to near-unconsciousness, Noah is a force to be reckoned with. As are those he begins to enlist, including the preacher Moses (Mykelti Williamson), the strong but sensitive Zeke (Theodus Crane) and young Henry (Renwick Scott), so determined to follow in Noah's footsteps he spends his evenings doing push-ups.

The female characters are just as formidable. Moses' wife, Pearly Mae (Adina Porter), is key to Noah's plan, while in the “big house,” Ernestine (Amirah Vann) rules the other servants with the steely politics of subtle influence she believes will keep her children, including daughter Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), safe. Drawn to Noah but still clinging to her mother's choices, Rosalee is torn between two visions of the future until a violent event leaves her no other choice.

Not surprisingly given its subject matter, “Underground” is a sprawling tale, with characters that include a troubled but still brutal slave-catcher (yes, that is Christopher Meloni) and a young abolitionist couple (Jessica De Gouw and Marc Blucas) who want to do more than attend meetings and make speeches.

Though not the primary focus of “Underground,” they are nuanced characters with conflicting motives. The same cannot be said of the plantation owners; Tom (Reed Diamond) and particularly Suzanna Macon (Andrea Frankle) are awful to the 11th degree — she smirks into her lemonade while Rosalee is whipped in place of her little brother. Intentionally or not, Green and Pokaski show little interest in humanizing slave-owners.

Though Tom is given political ambitions and a little more empathy — he finally calls for Rosalee's whipping to stop — the Macons serve mostly to embody the callous ability to see slaves as something other than fellow humans. Any exploration of the universal perils of a system based on oppression is done through Cato (Alano Miller), a disfigured slave who, as assistant overseer, can be just as abusive as his white masters.

The marriage between historical drama and action series is more than a little bumpy to begin with, in part because “Underground” delights in confounding expectations, particularly in tone, which is more action-adventure than solemn historical drama. Co-produced by Akiva Goldsman and John Legend, “Underground” may be the first antebellum drama with a hip-hop beat, and Anthony Hemingway, who directs the first four episodes, is not afraid to follow wild, swooping shots with scenes of oil-painting stillness.

But for all its dramatic pulse, historic details and narrative twists, “Underground” simply takes too long to get going; it isn't until the fourth episode that the show's real story, and potential, reveal themselves.

Even with its flaws, "Underground" is a significant show, and not just because it reminds us that the Declaration of Independence did not end tyranny in America, that the murderous brutality we condemn in other nations is part of our own history as well.

Unlike many other series, even in this vaunted age, “Underground” tells a story we have not seen, a story we need to see: how so many overcame such large obstacles to not just escape, but to also help others to escape. The Underground Railroad didn't just deliver thousands to freedom, it made the hideous contradiction of slavery in a democracy too conspicuous to ignore.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 09, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "`Underground' brings a crucial topic to light, though slowly - TELEVISION REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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