Eye on Film: WGN’s Slave Revolt Drama “Underground” 

The slave revolt drama “Underground” from WGN, starring Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Christopher Meloni, Alano Miller and an array of talented onscreen players, takes place on a plantation in Georgia in the years that precede the American Civil War.

It is a time period where strife and uncertainty walk side-by-side, with change and hope trailing not far behind.

Recently, I was able to sit down and talk with show creators and writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, as well as director Anthony Hemingway. Though the actors who interpret this story will ultimately get the glory, or the blame, it is the writers and director who spark the imagination of the actors and set the direction and spirit of the project.  

I think weve seen stories of slaves being depicted as only one way, but they were people who laughed and had full lives. Thats what was so important to us, to see the breadth of them in a different way, said Green. “It can be big and exciting, it can be romantic, it can be hard to watch, it can be all of that stuff rolled into one. And not just with the slaves, the abolitionists were the precursors to the Civil Rights Movement and it is important for us to see this couple participate in the underground railroad. Everyone came together to fight this injustice. Any artist doesnt create in a vacuum simply to create in a vacuum. I think that discussion matters. If this starts discussion, wonderful.

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(Photo Credit: WGN)

Pokaski, a white male, expounded on his journey to understanding the subject matter well enough to write about it effectively.

It always matters,” he said. “To me, it was evident from the first day and each day I understood a little more.  I will never fully understand but I think there is a universal greatness to this story. Someone decides theyre not property, theyre going to be free. I am just amazed that the story hasnt been told (on television).


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(Photo Credit: Variety)

Weve seen depictions of what it was like to be a slave in the field, but with the character Ernestine we answer the question What is it like to be a shadow in their world all the time?” said Green as she discussed the character Ernestine, a house slave portrayed by actress Amirah Vann, and how these characters were different from what we have seen in other depictions of American slavery.“To me, I felt it was fascinating that she had power. Where you take the power? How you use it?  It was mental slavery as well as physical slavery. I think Ernestine is the best example of that. She has all this power yet she chooses to stay there.

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(Photo Credit: IMDB)

Green also addressed the notion that “Underground” is somehow lucky to have gotten a deal with WGN.

I thought it was very important that we found the right home for it because we were very specific on what we wanted to do, and to do that we were going to have to be bold and take a risk,” he said.  “When we found WGN, it wasnt like Oh, thank God but more like Great, you understand what we want to do.”

Director Anthony Hemingway is known for his work on Red Tails, Ali and Treme

With anything that I do, I always try to find a way to inspire and educate and motivate,” said Hemingway. “My task is inspired by the script, which is very aggressive, and rightfully so. I wanted it to be bold, I wanted it to be daring.  One of the things I enjoyed was trying to defy anything that people think they know of this. One of the things some people will take from this is Why another slave narrative? Why do I need to see this?”  

“I think there are important messages here,” he continued. “To see the courage, strength and the swag that we rarely get to see. I think were overly saturated with the brutality. We didnt want to sit in that. We really wanted to find the celebration. We really wanted to show the hope and integrated efforts that came to people trying to reach for the revolution. Thats what we were all about here. We were really trying to find a new voice and create a new language here.

“Underground” is produced by John Legend and premieres on superstation WGN America tonight, March 9. Check local listings for specific times in your area.  

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