Since childhood, I’ve been curious about my heritage. I’m first-generation Caribbean-Canadian. I didn’t pay much attention to this fact until I was older. However, there was one thing that I understood above anything else: I wasn’t only Canadian, but North American.
A part of me has always been fascinated by the history of Black people in the United States. My country has its own tumultuous legacy involving race relations. However the fact remains that when America screams, we hear the echo. I was born merely a decade after some of the Civil Rights era’s most turbulent years. My hometown is predominantly white. I’m no stranger to racism, and I’ve always wondered about its continental beginnings.
Throughout my life I’ve seen period dramas that portrayed slavery. Their approach differed widely—from focusing on it, to barely mentioning it. Roots was especially significant to me. When I was in high school I read Alex Haley’s book; I found the original miniseries online when I was older.
Then a few months ago, I heard about Underground.
At this point, maybe you’re asking yourself, “Does the world really need another story about slavery?”
Now, you might say,”No!” Maybe you’ve been so badly scarred by the pain of racism that you don’t need a reminder of how it all began.
But if you’re curious, I encourage you to give this show a chance.
Yes, Underground is set in antebellum America. And it doesn’t shy away from depicting moments of despair and pain. But it promises to explore those moments through the lense of possibility.
The “Underground” of the series’ title is the Underground Railroad. Noah is a slave played by Aldis Hodge. He’s a strong protagonist, active and eager to change his fate for the better. Here, it’s important for me to let you know that this is an action-oriented show. (In one interview, I heard an actor refer to Underground as a “thriller”.) As the show unfolds it will trace Noah’s journey as he leads a group of his peers to freedom. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Rosalee, a house slave. At one point in a scene with Noah, she states that in spite of any assumed perks, she and the other house slaves are, “still slaves. [It d]on’t matter where we sleep.” The poignancy of this line impressed me. It isn’t every day that a show will comment on a tradition that’s at the heart of colourism.
Two of Underground’s characters who have a pivotal role are Tom Macon and John Hawkes. Tom is about to run a campaign to be a senator; he owns the plantation where Rosalee and her fellow slaves live. Meanwhile Tom’s brother, John Hawkes, is a lawyer and burgeoning abolitionist. I won’t spoil the story much further, but the writers have done their best to ensure that these siblings will continue to cross paths. A clash between these two men is inevitable. Although they’re related, by the episode’s end, I didn’t think either of them truly understood how different they are.
Other familiar faces in the cast include Adina Porter (True Blood), Alano Miller (Jane the Virgin), and Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU). I also think it’s important to point out that the show’s production team is inclusive. John Legend is an executive producer. Misha Green and Joe Pokaski are the series’ creators.
The first episode of Underground left me feeling optimistic. The show’s premise promises that it will feature a perspective on its subject that most productions of its kind have ignored. Another plus for me is the suggestion that Underground’s characters are going to be truly dynamic—I already have hunches about who to be wary of, who I like, and who I despise. And yet…These are only hunches. One character’s scenes revealed a twist that left me disappointed—yet somehow, still curious. Is he really as awful as I think? Also, I care about Noah and his fellow slaves. It’s easy to say that a tale about a slave’s road to freedom will end predictably, but I have the feeling that there are plenty of surprises to come.
Still, the question of relevance remains. I’m more than satisfied to say that Underground passed the test. The show’s underlying themes resonate today. When Black people experience racism intimately in real life, and our news casts are filled with police brutality, one can’t help but wonder how far we’ve come. Still, the strength of this show’s characters reminded me of who we are. Not merely oppressed people, but fighters. It’s important to use art to depict people of colour as dynamic and strong. Shows such as Underground have the power to inspire us to be hopeful, and more importantly, play an active role in the unfolding of our destiny.