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.
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?
Renwick Scott as Henry, Theodus Crane as Zeke, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee, Aldis Hodge as Noah, Alano Miller as Cato, Johnny Ray Gill as Sam, and Mykelti Williamson as Moses in WGN America’s “Underground.”(Handout)
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee(Kimberly Whitfield / Sony Pictures Television)
William Still (Chris Chalk), right, and a runaway slave talk.(Steve Dietl / WGN America)
Cato (Alano Miller), Henry (Renwick Scott) and Zeke (Theodus Crane) are on the run in a scene from “Underground.”(Skip Bolen / WGN America)
Cato (Alano Miller), Noah (Aldis Hodge) and Moses (Mykelti Williamson) are poised for action.(Skip Bolen / Sony Pictures Television)
Clyde (David Kency), Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica de Gouw) and John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) meet.(Skip Bolen / WGN America)
Pearly Mae (Adina Porter), with Boo (Darielle Stewart) on her lap, reads the song cloth to Moses (Mykelti Williamson).(Kimberly Whitfield / Sony Pictures Television)
Henry (Renwick Scott), Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Noah (Aldis Hodge), with a knife, in a scene from “Underground.”(Skip Bolen / Sony Pictures Television)
Zeke (Theodus Crane) holding his newborn son that Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) helped deliver.(Kimberly Whitfield / Sony Pictures Television)
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee(Steve Dietl / Sony Pictures Television)
Aldis Hodge as Noah(Steve Dietl / Sony Pictures Television)
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.
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.
Films and television shows that have depicted slavery in the U.S. on screen.(Handout)
“Gone With the Wind,” starring Vivien Leigh, left, as Scarlett O’Hara, and Hattie McDaniel as house servant Mammy, garnered McDaniel the first Oscar for an African American performer.(MGM)
Uncle Remus (James Baskett) spins a tale of fun and adventure for his young friends Toby (Glenn Leedy, left) and Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) in the Disney classic live-action/animation fantasy movie. The film portrayed Uncle Remus as a happy-go-lucky former slave, singing the Oscar-winning song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”(Walt Disney Pictures)
Two con men, Quincy Drew (James Garner) and his black friend Jason O’Rourke (Louis Gossett Jr., left), work a hustle In 1857. Drew sells Jason, who’s a free man, to slave owners, then they split the profits when he escapes. Brenda Sykes also is pictured here.(Warner Bros.)
Based on Alex Haley’s bestseller, “Roots” -- a 12-hour miniseries from ABC -- followed 100 years and several generations of the author’s African ancestors, from the arrival of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton, right), through emancipation after the Civil War.(ABC Photo Archives)
Denzel Washington, center, and Morgan Freeman, right, starred in “Glory.” Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of Private Trip, a soldier caught up by prejudice.(Tri-Star Pictures)
Djimon Hounsou is Cinque, an African taken from his homeland and sold into slavery, in the movie “Amistad.”(Andrew Cooper / DreamWorks)
Chi McBride portrays Desmond Pfeiffer, a onetime British nobleman who became the butler-servant in the household of Abraham Lincoln. Danny Bakewell, then leader of the Brotherhood Crusade, and other civic leaders protested vehemently about the content of the show and its comedic portrayal of slavery.(UPN)
Sally Field, right, is Mary Todd Lincoln, and Gloria Reuben is Elizabeth Keckley in the movie “Lincoln.” The film depicted Abraham Lincoln’s struggles with his own government in outlawing slavery.(David James / DreamWorks)
Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington star in “Django Unchained,” the tale of an escaped slave who joins with a bounty hunter to enact revenge.(Andrew Cooper / The Weinstein Co. )
Michael Fassbender plays slave owner Edwin Epps, Lupita Nyong’o portrays Patsey, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northup in the movie “12 Years a Slave.” The film depicts the kidnap and forced servitude of a free black man by Southern slave owners.(Francois Duhamel / Fox Searchlight)
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.
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.
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