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These series take us a step closer to slavery not being about race, but about America

A black and white illustration of a man and woman escaping through a swamp.
(Alexandra Bowman/For The Times)

“The Underground Railroad,” Oscar winner Barry Jenkins’ limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s magical realist slavery novel, has been lauded with all manner of praise since its May 14 premiere on Amazon Prime Video. “It’s terrifying, exhilarating, and, at times, redeeming,” Lorraine Ali wrote in the Los Angeles Times. It looks to be a contender at the Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 19.

But it’s not that simple. It never is when slavery is depicted. Summing up a common sentiment on social media, Twitter user @I_Kimberraxi says, “I really hate slavery based movies or series. I get so angry watching them... They disturb/trigger me so much.”

For the record:

11:13 a.m. June 24, 2021An earlier version of this post said “The Underground Railroad” is on Netflix. It is on Amazon Prime Video.

Indeed, Jenkins never flinches from the more disturbing imagery of Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel, including a scene in the first episode where a captured slave is burned alive.

Whether you’re making a harrowing drama such as “The Underground Railroad,” or a dark comedy like Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” (also a critical darling), slavery is dangerous terrain. It’s not just the images, by definition disturbing if you strive for any kind of fidelity, but the tone, which must rise above constant despair and sadness if anyone is to stick around and watch.

 Sheila Atim (as Mabel) in "The Underground Railroad".
Sheila Atim (as Mabel) in “The Underground Railroad”.
(Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios)
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For Jenkins, the key was emphasizing survival as well as suffering. He was drawn to the strength and courage of those who made it through, the imagination and fortitude necessary to carve a path through hell, as the lead character of “Underground,” Cora (Thuso Mbedu), must do. Such herculean effort, Jenkins says, needs to be acknowledged.

“We’ve been shirking the responsibility of honoring these folks for so long, and it’s time for people who work with visual images to honor their sacrifice in living, not dying,” Jenkins told The Times before the series premiered. “It’s the sole reason that someone like me is here today. If I can take these images and recontextualize them, it makes the representation of the images worthwhile.”

“Underground Railroad” is hardly the first series to wrestle with such issues. “Roots” was a pop culture phenomenon when it premiered in 1977, an epic that takes the viewer from the horrors of the Middle Passage through emancipation and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. More recently, WGN’s “Underground,” which shouldn’t be overlooked in the face of “Underground Railroad,” rendered a gritty portrait of slaves, played by rising stars including Jurnee Smollett and Aldis Hodge, fighting for freedom. (Like “Underground Railroad,” it also used a hip-hop soundtrack to connect past to present.)

There have also been notable failures. In 1998, “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” a comedy in which an English nobleman (Chi McBride) plays Abraham Lincoln’s valet, somehow lasted a month before it was canceled. Many couldn’t fathom the very idea of making a comedy set amid slavery.

What, then, to make of “The Good Lord Bird”? James McBride’s novel, which won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction, tells the story of young Henry Shackleford, nicknamed Onion, an escaped slave who reluctantly joins the ragtag forces of radical abolitionist John Brown. It doesn’t take long for Onion to realize that Brown, for all his noble ambitions of emancipation, is as mad as a hatter.

The novel’s voice lands somewhere between Mark Twain and Richard Pryor, as the long-winded Brown wears out his welcome even among those who earnestly believe in his cause. The TV version pulls off a minor miracle in nailing the book’s tone, thanks largely to Ethan Hawke’s fire-breathing, prayer-happy Brown. (Hawke also created the series). The slaves in the show, particularly newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson’s Onion, essentially roll their eyes at their would-be savior, even as they follow his lead.

Young Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion and Ethan Hawke as John Brown in sit together in a scene from "The Good Lord Bird."
Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion and Ethan Hawke as John Brown in “The Good Lord Bird.”
(William Gray/SHOWTIME)

McBride, reached by phone, has no problem if you laugh as you watch “The Good Lord Bird” — as long as you keep watching.

“I personally don’t want to see something that says to me, ‘Take your medicine,’” the novelist says. “I just don’t want to see that. I know I should, but why would I, when ‘Captain America’ is just a click away and the good guy wins? I wanted the story to be uplifting. We’re trying to find a way to discuss these things without getting pissed off at each other.”

“The Good Lord Bird” might also be considered a palate cleanser at a time when Black people’s trauma is front and center on television. From Amazon Prime’s “Them,” a horror anthology series that depicts some of the most disturbing white-on-Black violence ever seen onscreen; to the Oscar-winning short film “Two Distant Strangers,” which takes a “Groundhog Day” approach to police violence against Black men, the gruesome images keep coming. There’s even a term for this phenomenon: “Black trauma porn.”

Compared to that, examining the legacy of slavery, through drama or dark comedy, doesn’t seem so hard — especially at a time when academia often falls under attack for emphasizing America’s racist history. Pop culture can’t fill the role of higher education, but it can still have an impact on the way we think about the past.

“I look forward to the day when these kinds of stories are no longer seen as stories about race, but rather stories about America,” McBride says. “The legacy of slavery, both positive and negative, belongs to all of us now. The heroes, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, they belong to all of us.”

Daveed Diggs as Frederick Douglass in "The Good Lord Bird."
(William Gray/Showtime)

And it doesn’t always have to be reverent. For all its tragedy, there’s something fanciful at the heart of “Underground Railroad,” which features an actual railroad running, well, underground, taking the would-be free from one state to the next. “The Good Lord Bird,” meanwhile, has fun not just with Brown but also with Douglass, played by Daveed Diggs as a bit of a self-absorbed fop.

“You have to look for the shining moments, the lights of brevity and amusement and humanity to convince readers and viewers that by revisiting this, they’re not going to be depressed,” McBride says.

No TV series could lessen the trauma of slavery even if it wanted to. Instead, such shows as “Underground Railroad” and “The Good Lord Bird” do something more realistic — and rewarding. They dramatize the range of humanity, good and bad, tragic and triumphant, that ran throughout the peculiar institution.


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