*Tonight marks the premiere of WGN America’s “Underground,” an ambitious 10 part series about a group of slaves attempting to break north on the Underground Railroad.
Once blacksmith Noah (Aldis Hodge) and house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett Bell) agree to team up for the escape, the pair will need assistance to pull it off. And it’s the who-can-you-trust factor that makes “Underground” such compelling viewing.
The series makes sure to treat the issue of slavery with the reverence that it warrants. However, creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have bent over backwards to bill “Underground” as an “action thriller,” and not what some folks on social media have already dismissed as “yet another slave drama.” To that end, John Legend was brought in as an executive producer and music supervisor.
So yes, there are beats that accompany much of the action, including Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” Yet the seriousness of the time period is never lost, thanks in large part to the strong cast and sober reminders of the savagery and degradation that slaves endured.
Director Anthony Hemmingway (“The People v. O.J. Simpson”) actually used the word “swag” to describe his approach to the project. He told the Television Critics Association: “I wanted to really kind of play the dichotomy of extremes that the narrative had, and really sit in that and swag in it and have fun, and really kind of present a stimulating experience that’s unknown or rarely known or really that helps defy what anyone’s coming to this knowing.”
The Georgia cotton plantation of Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) is filled with enough dubious characters that become aware of the escape plan – from pure hustler Cato (Alano Miller) to one-eyed preacher Moses (Mykelti Williamson). You’re never quite sure where they stand.
Rosalee’s mother and head house slave Ernestine (Amirah Vann) is a character whose protective love of her daughter will take her to a dimension we’ve yet to see in any slave drama, but is her love so strong that she’s willing to compromise the escape plan to keep Rosalee safe?
There are a number of shocking twists and suspenseful moments throughout the 10 episodes, but, again, the biggest must-see element of the first four episodes shown to critics was in figuring out whom to trust.
Below, I sat down with Amirah Vann and Adina Porter, who plays strong-willed wife and mother Pearly Mae, to discuss their approach to playing the characters, and if they felt any extra pressure in portraying slaves.
“Underground,” also starring Christopher Meloni, Marc Blucas ad Jussie Smollett (in a later episode), debuts tonight (March 9) at 10 p.m. on WGN America.
Watch the full trailer below: