‘Underground’ Review – Can Slavery Work As A Thriller?

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Whether or not you enjoy the new  WGN America seriesUnderground or not depends on how you feel about slavery. If you feel that its been under documented and that there are people who need to know more about its impact, then you may like the show. If you are someone who doesn’t feel that its entertaining to watch Black people be humiliated, disrespected, degraded, and dehumanized, then it may not be for you.

Underground, the brainchild of writer/producers Misha Greenand Joe Pokaski, with John Legend along as executive producer, is not a typical slave narrative. The slaves on Macon Plantation are not happy and docile, they are trying to make the best of inhumane conditions. And as exemplified by Noah, played by Aldis Hodge, some of them have become bold enough to take the risks of trying to find a better life despite the real dangers awaiting them once they run.

Noah recruits other slaves, including house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett Bell) and Black slave driver Cato (Alano Miller) who is trusted by their owner, Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) thus mistrusted by other slaves. Their bold plan is advanced when Rosalee is nearly raped by a plantation overseer.

In the four episodes available for review, there are enough glimpses of the atrocities of slave life to make the slaves desire for freedom by any means believable. Whippings are plentiful as are the constant indignities when any one group of people has absolute power over the other.

In one scene, although its clear that a child on the plantation is Massa’s illegitimate son (he even plays with the boy we assume is his half-brother) the child is spared a brutal lashing only by the intervention of his sister, a witness to the incident, while his father looks on calmly.

In two other truly disturbing scenes, Underground shows how both slaves and plantation owners used sexuality to manipulate, control and subjugate others for both protection and to slake purely carnal desires.

Slaves are at the whims of their male and female owners and have few moments of joy – even overcoming a difficult birth turns horrific once the baby’s mother decides that slavery is untenable for her child. A reference to a breeding farm (something that actually existed) is chilling, as are the punishments for wrongdoings both real and potential – whippings and torture among the most egregious – as well as the fact that a family could be torn apart due to the debts or whims of slaveowners.

All of these historically accurate details enrich the storyline. There is a searing cameo by Jussie Smollettin search of his wife, sold away by their owner. A parallel narrative about the differing paths between Macon Plantation owner Tom and his brother, John Hawks (Marc Blucas) (loosely based on the real-life abolitionist) also provides a historical perspective, as he joins up with real-life Philadelphia-based Black Underground Railroad conductor William Still and Henry ‘Box’ Brown happens by.

The odious practice of slave-catching, particularly its role in returning freed slaves back to slavery is explored, although in the character played by Law and Order: SVU‘s Christopher Meloni, more sympathy is given to his plight than one might deem necessary for what was an especially brutal and reprehensible activity.

Underground is billed as a thriller, not a slavery story per se. Its 10 episodes will likely focus on the run itself,who survives it and what sacrifices the slaves who run make to get to freedom, while those left behind, including the slaveowners, try to figure out the best way to deal with their losses. A developing romance between Noah and Rosalee, fueled by their understanding that this run may end in death…or worse adds some sweetness to a tough subject.

The main problem with Underground is that the complex and widespread practice of slavery and its attendant psychological impact on both Black slaves and white slaveowners, as well as poor whites, can’t be explored thoroughly in a 10 hour show. Nor is the material strong enough to overcome the difficulty of helping folks connect with a history so distant for most of us. Watching the show, I thought about how a GPS, a smartphone and social media could have helped slaves tremendously because that’s how a contemporary world is laid out. Of course, that wasn’t an option.

The bigger problem is that the actors, too, are coming from a contemporary mindset. They are all much too educated and much too 21st century in their language and demeanor to ultimately be fully convincing as fearful, but resolute slaves. Underground might have been much more compelling had someone been sent from the future, Outlander style to supervise the run, because Hodge does seem as though he’s wandered in from a Chicago or New York of the future to help the brothers and sisters out.

As physically compelling an actor as he is, Hodge can’t summon enough docility, even in a scene where he begs for forgiveness, to be convincing in a period piece, which is the same for pretty much everyone involved. It takes either tremendous acting skills to go back in time or stellar material and while the actors involved are pretty good, the writing just doesn’t support them fully. (Although Jussie’s cameo is pretty good, if only because his righteous rage hits exactly the right beats.) The soundtrack, will uses contemporary hip-hop and at one point, a song by The Weeknd, takes you een further out of the period, but a younger audience might find that a way in to Underground, which is likely why that choice was made.

The standout work of lesser-known actors Alano Miller as Cato and Amirah Vann as Ernestine deserves a contemporary role that is up to their talents. Wire actor Clarke Peters is simply miscast, because the world-weary gravitas that he brings to any role, used so well in The Wire, is just misplaced here as you can’t believe he’d ever be party to what he’s supposed to be in this character.

Underground has its appeal to those who want to have a more visceral slavery experience while watching it as a free person from a safe distance on a flat screen or laptop, a reality that sadly, slaves would never see. But it falls short of being groundbreaking, which, if we have to suffer through watching the ordeal of millions of people who voices will never be heard and stories will never be told, should be the case.

Underground premieres on WGN America Wednesday, March 9 at 10 p.m. Actors will be live tweeting.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell @jurneesmollett

Aldis Hodge @AldisHodge

Christopher Meloni @Chris_Meloni

Alano Miller @AlanoMiller

Jessica de Gouw @jessdegouw

Amirah Vann @amirahvann

Marc Blucas @marcblucas

Reed Diamond @reeddiamond

Johnny Ray Gill @JohnnyRayGill

Theodus Crane @theoduscrane

Mykelti Williamson @mykeltiwmson

Adina Porter @AdinaPorter

Jussie Smollett @jussiesmollett

Christopher Backus @_cbackus

PJ Marshall @ThePJMarshall

James Lafferty @ThisIsLafferty

Chris Chalk @chalkchris

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