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By Gerri Miller


Television and movies have memorably dramatized the horrors of slavery in Roots, Amistad, Django Unchained and the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. But the new WGN drama Underground takes a different approach to the story of African-American bondage, following brave individuals who attempt a life-or-death run to safety in the North, the abolitionists who aid them, and the mercenary bounty hunters who profit from their capture.

Set on an antebellum cotton plantation in Georgia, the 10-episode series focuses on a part of history that most people haven’t heard of, or might know only as a history book footnote about  Harriet Tubman, a slave who escaped and helped others do the same. They made their escape on what became known as the Underground Railroad, a series of safe houses en route to the North.

Aldis as Noah and Jurnee as Rosalee

“This period of time in our history has somehow become obscured by shadow,” says executive producer Akiva Goldsman. “It's the vanishing of our past, and that we are doomed to repeat it becomes ever more likely. We're not teaching history here, but this is the truth of where we come from. And an opportunity to tell stories about it is both meaningful as entertainment, and hopefully edifying over time.”

“I think what makes this powerful television is the extent of the adversity that these people faced, and had the courage to find a way to overcome,” says music superstar John Legend, also a series executive producer who supervised the music, co-wrote and produced the original theme “Heaven’s Door”. He also contributed background vocals to the film, explaining, “It’s so dramatic and stark and moving, that it makes for riveting television.”

It began as breakfast conversation that creators/writers/executive producers Joe Pokaski and Misha Green, alumni of the Heroes writing room, had three years ago. Green proposed the idea, “and we pitched it, and we failed.” Undeterred, they wrote the script on spec, and it grabbed the interest of Goldsman and EPs Joby Hariold and Tory Tunnell, and ultimately, WGN.

Considering the high stakes drama inherent in the story, it’s easy to see why.
“Running was such a hard decision,” says Green. “To do this, you had to be the bravest person out there, to step off this plantation that you've lived on your entire life. There was such ingenuity that they were using to get North—hiding in costumes, pretending to be white, shipping themselves in crates. It was a desperate and dangerous time that created desperate and dangerous people. But from the start, we wanted to see the humanity of everyone—those running, those helping and those going after them.”

Jurnee Smollett Bell

She and Pokaski did extensive research to ensure historical accuracy. “We read a lot of first-person slave narratives. We tried to stay as true as possible to everything we found. And a lot of times, truth was stranger than fiction,” Pokaski explained. Slave catching became a profitable industry rife with corruption. For example, “Judges would get $10 for each runaway slave,” he pointed out.

The cast also did their research, reading first-person narratives of enslavement and reading the works of historians like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  But nothing brought history home quite like being on location in Louisiana at a real, preserved plantation.

Hodge as Noah and Miller as Cato

“There is no research like actually being in the moment, and living it,” says Aldis Hodge, who portrays blacksmith Noah, organizer of the escape plan from the Macon Plantation. Imagining himself in his character’s shoes, he marveled at the courage necessary to face “all the things that can kill you—the heat, snakes, alligators, the slave catchers. If you run and you succeed, they’ll make your family pay for it. My hat’s off to all of them that took the chance because of what they had to go through.”

For Alano Miller, who plays the duplicitous, hated slave driver Cato, being in the slave quarters was the toughest part. “There's something in the air, you know. The scratch marks, the bloodstains, the chains—you see it all. It's there, and it's real, and you can't deny that. It was emotional for all of us.”

Not surprisingly, the cast bonded during the emotionally and physically difficult shoot. “We all became a family,” says Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who plays house slave Rosalee and Noah’s love interest. “We trusted each other. We pushed each other harder. We were there for each other in those moments when we had to do difficult scenes.”

In the first episode, she takes blame, and a beating, to save her little brother from punishment. “Afterward, it took me maybe seven or eight minutes to stop crying, and Alano, Amirah [Vann], Aldis, and Anthony [Hemingway, director] and Misha just came and huddled around me and just let me weep, and didn't judge it,” Smollett-Bell relates. “It was a safe environment. You do go home and cry your eyes out all night long. But because we had such an amazing cast and crew, such an amazing support group, we were willing to go there, knowing that they would catch us.”


As August Pullman, a character whose true nature emerges in a shocking twist in Episode One, Christopher Meloni also got a sense of what slaves endured. “Have you ever seen a cotton plant up close?” he asks. “It's the most unfriendly, unforgiving thing I've ever seen. It's worse than a cactus. It is prickly, brown, and scratchy, and you have to pick it up, and it's the got the little seeds in there. They had to fill a huge burlap bag with it and drag it along. It was so hot and humid. And all I could think was ‘I get to go back to my trailer!’”

Makeup and costumes also made the milieu more real for the actors. For Alano Miller, the scar applied to his face to play Cato did just that. “The journey started in the makeup room, and in taking it off, it was a ritual that helped as well—to leave it on the set helped me get rid of it, because it was a lot to carry.”

The soundtrack is another important element, using contemporary songs and sounds rather than the expected period music. A track by Kanye West “sets the tone we wanted to set for the entire show—urgent, current, timeless and really powerful,” explains John Legend. “We didn't want the music to feel too stuck in the period because we feel like the story is really relevant and meaningful now, and so we didn't want the music to make people feel like they were going to a museum. We wanted them to feel like it was something fresh.”

Making history resonate today was a mantra for the entire project. “One of the things we talked about from the beginning when we conceived the show is that this isn't about the occupation; it’s about the revolution,” says Misha Green. “I think the story of the Underground Railroad is just so exciting and thrilling and hasn't been told. It was the first integrated civil rights movement in America, and I think that that's the important thing to really highlight again today.”

Green plans to continue telling it. “We have five seasons in mind. The Underground Railroad became part of a spy network for the Civil War, so there are a lot of places to go with it,” she says.old House

Joe Pokaski hopes that viewers are inspired by the heroism they see on screen. “Hopefully,” he says, “this show challenges whoever is watching it to look at their own life and see how they can step up a little, and be a little braver!”

UNDERGROUND premieres March 9 at 10 ET/PT on WGN
 


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