WGN’s Underground revolves around a group of slaves concocting a suicidal 600-mile escape from a plantation in the Peach State of Georgia. On their journey, they receive help from a secret white abolitionist couple running a station on the Underground Railroad. All this happening, as they try to shake the tail of people charged with bringing these Georgian runaways back alive, or in body bags. Slavery is never a fun topic to explore whether that be on the big screen with film like we’ve seen in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, Tarantino’s Django Unchained and the 70s classic Mandingo or even the more political side of slavery with such underrated gems like Amazing Grace, talking about William Wilberforce and ending slavery throughout the British Empire.
Underground is not fun, despite it’s pacing engaging viewers at rhythmic pace. Underground is bloody and brutal, whether that be from the cut throat natures of the slave owners to the mutilation of children or even our ‘exceptional niggers’ will to resist capture from white men, to mimic a phrase from Calvin Candie (Django Unchained). The year is 1857, four years prior to the start of the renowned American Civil War. The backdrop of Underground shows us great examples of hope and heroism but in contrast to more “in-your-face” ideals are of racism, hoplessness, fear and servituide (in more ways than one). But also the inhumanity shown towards the slaves, through many examples of lashings, torture, slave rape and molestation.
Underground is a historical period drama with many thriller elements, hence the Prison Break-esque tone, except the jail is not a Alcatraz-like prison. The jail is a plantation in Georgia, first and foremost but even more importantly than that, the jail is society itself; a society that has normalised throwing your fellow-man into bondage. This is a society that has played judge, jury and executioner, killing slaves when they are no longer useful. Underground is very thought-provoking with the historical setting and the high-octane chases as well as blurring the colours of black and white when we meet our abolitionist couple, John (Marcus Blucas) and Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica De Gouw) who are colour blind. They don’t see black and white, they see human beings with their own beliefs and ideologies.
We also have Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a mixed-race slave who we can only assume is the product of slave rape. That being said the nature of the relationship between her mother, Ernestine (Amirah Vann) and Master Tom Macon (Reed Diamonds) is very starnage. He’s as racist as it gets. He uses derogatory words for his slaves like he’s picking cotton candy. But on the other hand, Ernestine and Tom always seem to be in some steamy sex scene together. To escape Georgia is a big task to execute alone, so Noah recruits some of the other slaves such as the young Henry (Renwick Scott) and the great hulk Zeke (Theodus Crane) as well the carpenter Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) and the religious preacher Moses (Mykelti Williamson), a slave that can read is very useful. Also in on this plan is Cato (Alano Miller), who, like Sammy J’s Stephen (Django Unchained), is in the pocket of the masters. Quite frankly, he’s an oppurtunistic scumbag, but by the end he shows his quality.
Outside of the central storyline is the side-arc of the Abolitionist Movement where we meet John (Blucas) and Elizabeth Hawkes (De Gouw). Remember, this is the South…Georgia where every man and his dog is a slave-whipping, black-hating racist. Sure, I shouldn’t generalize like that, but the vast majority is very anti-black. The ones who aren’t, dare not speak out, in fear of their safety. Also, if you speak out against slavery in the South, there are forces out there who can make your life very difficult or even end you. In times like this, those who held Jim Crow ideologies believed that whites who helped blacks were just as bad as the slaves themselves. We have these two anti-slavery advocates who speak out against the system. They’re running a station for runaway slaves to hide. They’re aiding and abetting those that society have branded as criminals. They may as well be runaways themselves, and this time, their white skin can’t save them.
We also have August Pullman (Christopher Meloni). He troubles me. One minute, he’s helping slaves and the next, he’s hunting them. But by the finale, I’ve deduced that he’s another asshole but his motivations are morally ambiguous. CW’s Reign is a period drama that uses modern songs in the era of Mary Queen Of Scotts. It’s as if the CW tried to mimic Elizabeth/Elizabeth: Golden Age but with a modern twist through the usage of modern pop songs. The soundtrack alone ruined that series, but with Underground, the soundtrack fits really well, even amidst the period setting. Under normal circumstances, I’m always in favour of a musical score in period dramas but the modern soundtrack for Underground adds to the “constant on-the-move” flavour of the series. Many songs have been revamped for television and the show itself feels like its taking the best bits of stories like Roots, 12 Years A Slave or Amistad but upgrading it a little, yet still respecting the past and I also found it very symbolic of real life abolitionist, Harriet Tubman.
The writing, directing and cinematography are truly excellent and I’m glad it wasn’t picked up by a major network by say, HBO or AMC. Being on a smaller network means less Hollywood interference and the creatives with WGN America have really made something spectacular. Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) and Jurnee-Smollett Bell (True Blood) lead the very talented cast that is brimming with talent and excellent performances. The series is very enjoyable, but violent, brutal and outright harrowing. Slavery is and will always be one of the darkest parts of our world’s history as it took place on both sides of the Atlantic. This shows the limits people will go to, regardless if that is of the mind, body or soul.