For every generation, there is a television show that audaciously attempts to tackle history in a way that the American public hasn’t yet seen. In the 1970’s it was Alex Haley’s Roots, and for this generation, it’s Misha Green and Joe Pokaski’s WGN Drama, Underground.
As the show revels in its Season 2 renewal, the team behind it has launched a campaign to be considered in the upcoming round of Emmy considerations. But with a show that addresses such sensitive and intense subject matter, their efforts carry a special significance.
A few weeks ago, WGN America and Sony Pictures Television hosted a gospel brunch and exclusive pilot screening for Academy members. As audience members filed into the Beverly Hilton, the excitement was palpable.
The brunch kicked off with a power-packed performance from Jason McGee and The Choir, who delivered moving renditions of “Ride On, King Jesus” and “Walk Over God’s Heaven.” With each song, they set the atmosphere for the resilient and triumphant tone of the show. Shortly afterward, we watched the pilot episode, which opened with none other than Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.”
Set in the Antebellum South, we follow the Macon 7, a group of seven enslaved African Americans, who bravely escape from the plantation to make the 600-mile trek to freedom.
The protagonists of the show are Noah (Aldis Hodge) and Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett), who are marvelously supported by an amazing cast of characters, many of whom were in attendance. Christopher Meloni (August Pullman), Alano Miller, (Cato), Jessica De Gouw (Elizabeth Hawkes) and Amirah Vann, (Ernestine) graced the stage to talk about their experiences on the show. The event was also attended by the show’s creative team, including co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, Director and Executive Producer Anthony Hemingway, and was moderated by Michelle Turner from Entertainment Tonight.
Jurnee Smollett, an actress who unapologetically combines her activism and acting, shared why Underground initially caught her attention: “It gives voice to the stories of those who did fight back-the revolutionaries who said ‘I’m taking agency over my life.’”
Her performance as Rosalee is nothing short of impressive. With every episode, we see an incremental transformation and realization of agency by Smollett’s character. Initially, we are introduced to a frail and timid woman, but throughout the first season we watch her blossom into a courageous woman who’s willing to put her life on the line for her companions.
Smollett explained that most of Rosalee’s struggles came byways of the effectiveness of slavery’s ability to separate slaves by skin tone. “The most tragic thing about slavery is that they succeeded at pitting us against each other,” she shared. “They made us believe that something like the house is a position we should settle for.”
Aldis Hodge discussed the importance of solidarity among runaway slaves. “Even if you make it, you still haven’t made it,” he said in reference to the dissonance many slaves felt after leaving their families behind. Hodge’s character expresses this sentiment weekly, as he struggles to encourage the group and keep everyone together.
In one of the breakthrough roles of the season, Amirah Vann (Ernestine), provides us with an introspective look into what it was like to be a house slave. Her character embodies the weight of what it means to be a mother who literally puts herself in harm’s way to ensure the safety of her children. Her gripping scenes and subtle gestures illustrate the dignity of enslaved women despite her incessant degradation.
With such a dynamic cast and creative force behind it, the announcement of a second season comes as no surprise. As Underground continues to engage key audiences, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of Hollywood takes notice.
Underground is worthy of Emmy consideration not only for the superb acting and complex storylines, but for the profound impact it is having on the way we talk about and remember America’s dark past. This classic tale with a modern twist brilliantly lures us in and encourages viewers to break free from the monotony of other, less nuanced portrayals of slavery. As the nation continues to engage in conversations surrounding race and social justice, Underground could not have come at a better time.