Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to sit with two stars, along with the creators, of the groundbreaking new television series “Underground” during a private screening of the first episode held at Harlem’s historic Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Underground is set in the 1800s and tells the story of a group of courageous young African-American slaves who band together to escape their plantation and navigate the Underground Railroad on a quest for freedom. Although it may sound similar to stories you’ve seen play out on either the big or small screen before, Underground brings a fresh perspective to not only the things African-Americans went through during our country’s lowest and most shameful time period, but shines a light on the courage and bravery of those who helped. It also indirectly draws parallels between the ongoing struggle with racism then that is still very prevalent today.
Speaking on why it was important to tell this story today, co-creator Misha Green says bringing the story to television allowed for a more through presentation of the history. “I think it was important because we wanted give people what they haven’t seen, as well as explore this time period in a way that I don’t think we’ve really delved into and I think television allows you to do that because it’s a longer forum,” said Green. Co-creator Joe Pokaski also weighed in, pointing out how the series is timely because it deals with an overall struggle that we’re still fighting as a country, while also making the factual point that we “haven’t come as far as we often give ourselves credit for” with regard to overcoming racism.
In one of the Underground pilot’s most cringe-worthy scenes, actress Jurnee Smollet-Bell’s character Rosalie takes lashes for her younger brother as punishment for something he “did wrong” in the eyes of someone on the plantation staff. She described the scene as the most difficult she’s ever had to shoot in her career thus far. “It was probably one of the hardest scenes I’ve had to do in my career. I asked our director, ‘please don’t let me hear the crack of the whip [beforehand].’ Afterwards, I couldn’t shake it.” She then elaborated further, describing what it was like to be shooting the scene and much of the series on location at what used to be an actual plantation. “You’re standing there with these trees and you’re like, ‘what have these trees seen? That spirit on that plantation….you can feel it the second you walk onto the grounds and it just kind of overtakes you and I just thought of all the Roaslie’s who’ve had to do [what she did].”
Actor Alano Miller, who plays the role of a slick-tongued, not very well-liked house slave Cato, says he found himself wanting to bring as much realism as he could to all aspects of his character. “For me, it was the fact that I looked at Cato and I judged him. I said all of these things about him but then I had to say, well, wait a minute; where’s the humanity about him? Where’s the love that he has? Where’s the fear? Where’s the bravery inside of him? And so for me, I think the things that were positive that are in him, I was fighting to make sure those things were seen.”
Given the timeliness of the series, we asked both Jurnee and Alano what they saw as the most important message(s) for viewers to take away from the series that would also be applicable to today’s racial climate. “Understanding that there’s a strategy,” Alano says. “You know, the Underground Railroad was strategic. The Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King Jr. was strategic. We have to understand that there’s a strategy. It’s one thing to raise our voices but, we have to understand that there is a strategy to it so, it’s going to take more than that.”
For Jurnee, the message to take away from the series is one of bravery and true activism.
“I think one thing to note was that this was the first integrated civil rights movement in our nation and one thing that Joe & Misha always talk about is to say, “how active is your activism?” You know, you had the abolitionists in the north who could’ve just done nothing. Black and white abolitionists and yet they made the choice to step outside of their comfort zones and to help and to put their lives on the line. [Finding] the courage to run, the courage to charter new territory. While we don’t have that physical run to do today, we have a run we’re still running. And I think when we work together as a nation and when we do step outside of our comfort zone and we’re not just tweeting a hashtag that’s popular, but we are actively putting in work that’s tangible, is the only time we’re going to truly see our country move forward.”
Jurnee also emphasized the importance of realizing that every little bit we do counts towards the overall progress of our country and our communities.
“Every single person matters. You know, we sum up these movements to Martin Luther King Jr. or to Rosa Parks or to Harriet Tubman or Fredrick Douglas, when there were thousands of other people who will never get credit for putting their lives at risk who did their part. And, we can’t seek the credit, but every little thing we do from mentoring someone, to bringing up a child, to cleaning up the trash in your neighborhood [matters.] Every single thing you do can help to better our neighborhoods and I don’t think we put enough importance on people who don’t get the recognition.”
Underground airs Tuesdays at 10pm EST on WGN America. For more information on the show, you can visit their official webpage HERE.
Photo Credit: WGN America/The Source