Why black men and women NEED to see ‘Underground’
By Mikael Trench
On Thursday Feb. 2, a large number of SCAD students, myself included, and community members came out to the screening of the hit WGN America drama, “Underground.” After the cast was honored with a special Spotlight Cast Award, we got a chance to screen a rough cut of the first episode of the second season which was followed by a Q and A with the cast members, including Aldis Hodge (Noah), Amirah Vann (Ernestine), Aisha Hinds (Harriet Tubman) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Rosalee).
“Underground” focuses on a group of Georgia plantation slaves who are planning their escape through the Underground Railroad with the help of a group of abolitionists as they try to avoid the clutches of the people who want them back under their control. The series began on March 9, 2016 and will be having its next season premiere on WGN on Wednesday, March 8 at 10 p.m. EST and 9 p.m. CST.
I didn’t have a chance to see the first season, so this screening was my opportunity to go and see what this show had to offer. For most of the 2010s, entertainment like this has been in a sort of renaissance period, taking off after the hit film “Django Unchained” in 2012. Since then, it seems that we are seeing more and more African American historical dramas, including films such as “12 Years a Slave” (2013), “The Butler” (2013) and “Selma” (2014). In 2016, in particular, we have seen this trend peak with works such as “Race,” “Free State of Jones,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “13th,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and even a remake of the hit miniseries “Roots.” For the most part, films of this kind have been pretty good, all varying in the way that they present this tough subject matter while also highlighting some often overlooked stories of African American history. This makes “Underground” that much more of a difficult show to pull off, as it could have easily come across as a cliché and requiring something different to pull in its audience, and that’s also what makes “Underground” so successful.
The direction in the show is engaging. With its fast pace, swift editing and overall heart-pounding tone, this series succeeds in lacking any dull moments. Each moment feels important and impactful, and the show does a spectacular job at balancing those feelings with a nice mix of entertaining, fast-paced action and some slower, but powerful scenes to help flesh out the characters and show off their complexity. Every scene has a great feeling of tension, which is a huge testament to the direction behind the show, as it could have very easily become predictable or gimmicky, and the build-up using that tension is very effective. I honestly didn’t know what would happen next in some scenes, which is exactly how a series like this should be presented. The show also takes an interesting dive into some of the dirtier sides of abolitionists and the work they did in order to free slaves, showing them planning out attacks and killing constantly. This move is fascinating, and helps the series show different a side of what these people did, but since their struggle is so well-realized, we can understand why it needs to happen.
However, that great tension and intensity would have been nothing had it not been for the engaging characters and the outstanding performances given by their actors. The series makes it very apparent that women are on the forefront of the show’s radar when it comes to characters. Smollett-Bell is the standout here, as she lends a great level of ferocity to the character of Rosalee, while at the same time portraying the effects of the frightening reality of these situations on her character, allowing us as an audience to see ourselves in her shoes even more. She is also determined and eventually conquers all of her fears, which allows her character development to shine through. Amirah Vann, as Ernestine, gives a good dose of tragedy to her character. As I mentioned previously, I had not seen the first season, but just from a first impression of the character you can tell she has seen things that have scarred and ultimately changed her. This wraps her character in a lot of mystery which builds the anticipation of seeing where they take her in later episodes. Aldis Hodge also gives a very strong performance as Noah, the main male character. He gives the character a lot of power and cunning without even uttering a line of dialogue, and it’s fun to see the wheels turning in his head whenever he’s trying to figure out the solution to a problem. And finally, mention must be made of the awesome depiction of Harriet Tubman, played magnificently by Aisha Hinds. Not only was this a refreshing take on this icon of black history, but her no nonsense attitude and determined spirit made her a favorite amongst the audience that night.
In the end, “Underground” is a true testament to how powerful direction and stunning performances can pull you into a story. It’s almost impossible to compare “Underground” to other works in this subgenre because it feels so different and refreshing, which elevates it even higher on the podium. With its engaging characters, superb direction, fast pace and burning intensity, “Underground” is a show that black women and men alike need to see. As Aldis Hodge said during his the Q and A, “I feel so proud to be able to tell a story of…revolution, a story of these people fighting back and I can’t help but be happy. I took on the role of someone I really respect as a man…and I respect what he represented because in this time, regardless of shackles or chains he knew he was free up here…so he fought to show people his worth, we still go through that in different ways today, showing people our worth and our own value.”