LOS ANGELES-Here comes the “Underground.” WGN America’s slave drama “Underground” is not what you saw in the 1977 hit miniseries “Roots.” Actually, it is unfair to compare the two. “Roots” was a groundbreaking piece of artistic work that captured the essence of slavery that had never been seen before. When “Roots” came on the scene, it shook America’s racial consciousness.
“Underground“may do to this generation what “Roots” did for an audience 39 years ago. The basic similarities between the two drama series is quite the same: slavery and a slave looking for a way out of the plantation. This is where the similarities end.
“Roots” was about Kunta Kinte and Chicken George, Haley’s family linage played out during the slave and Civil War eras. Whereas “Roots” hinted about a secret late night pathway for runaway slaves, “Underground” attacks it head on with rapid intensity. The script is fast and unflinching. The acting is delivered with feverish brilliance as the plot focuses on unpredictability.
This is what makes “Underground” a show to watch. Noah (Aldis Hodge) is “Underground’s” version of Kunta Kinte. He’s tired of being on the plantation. He knows life has to be better than picking cotton all day long, and being subjected to the master’s whip at any time. He makes plans for his freedom exit. In his quest for freedom, Noah goes out on the recruiting trail to get other slaves to join him.
This parlays into the historical significance of the Underground Railroad. It has been estimated that more than 100, 000 slaves migrated to freedom through the channels of the “Underground Railroad. “Underground” gives us a peek into that journey with a look at the slave taking his destiny into his own hands.
Hodge’s performance in “Underground” is so powerful that it is sure to land him more starring roles. His supporting cast, which includes the lovely and ultra-talented Jurnee Smollett Bell (Rosalee), help make “Underground” must-watch TV. “Underground”packs a wallop like a gut-wrenching Joe Louis uppercut and keeps on ticking.
“Underground speaks volumes to the sacrificial heroics of the oppressed being powerful and witty enough to outhink their captors to make their way to freedom without the help of a GPS map or a brightly lit highway. When you consider what slaves were up against should they try to escape their marginal existence, it is all the more fascinating.
More than that, the timing of “Underground” hitting the airwaves probably couldn’t be more appropriate considering the racial climate that has been escalating in this country for the past eight years.
The Obama Factor kicked in effectively in 2008, and some factions of good old USA have decided that its best to come out of the closet with their bigotry and not shy away from it anymore. The results have been an endless clash of racial animosity that has created a restlessness divide the country has not seen in decades.
That’s pretty scary because no one is interested in going back to back of the bus. Whether its through the courts (affirmative action, education, voting rights) or taking form in the outcry for justice (Ferguson, Black Lives Matters), racial tensions are about as ordinary these days as going shopping. That’s unfortunate.
This issue was first embedded into our being through slavery from which the country still have not fully recovered from. “Underground” powerfully explores that journey during its infancy.
The real power of “Underground” is that it uncovers the layers of racial hate through the hideous human trafficking money machine that America so openly and unapologetically engaged in. When the Alex Haley’s miniseries “Roots” hit television sets in 1977, it was such a compelling story about the hideous slave trade that it turned a racially deaf-tone America on its ear.
“Roots” opened a lot of eyes about the travails of the wicked slavery era, a period in which America has been slow to have open discussions about, be it through the textbook in public education or on a more social level. Hollywood’s stab on the subject with recent films like “12 Years a Slave,” “Glory, “Amistad,” “Lincoln,” And “Jefferson in Paris”, with the exception of Django Unchained,” displays the narrative of blacks ( with a few exceptions) living their existence in a passive manner.
“Gone with the Wind” would certainly fall in that category.
“Underground,” unflinchingly, is not “Gone with the Wind.” The drama series goes deeper into the minds of slaves eager to rebuke their tired routine of kidnapping, being raped, beaten and subjected to having their families torn apart at any time.
The true essence of “Underground” shakes the stereotypes of the buckling and shuffling and subservient Negro that have been portrayed in some films about that time period. “Underground” shares the narrative from the point of view that there was plenty of angst and unsettling thoughts of escaping the life of servitude that ran rampant through many slave quarters. Does Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman come to mind?
There was a rebellion that caught fire through the “Underground Railroad,” where white abolitionists joined hand with the cause of the Negro in the quest to open the doors of freedom for the slave.
What “Roots” did was wake the crust out of the eyes of people about slavery with its very detailed, minute-by-minute undertaking, “Underground” plants the seeds of acceptance, equality, freedom, and the fight for human rights in a much more explosive, combative manner.
Being a slave meant survival. Being a slave meant always looking for a way out of the wretched trenches they were forced to deal with, trying to escape slave catchers, whip beatings, castration and enduring a life of shackles. “Underground” brings all of this back to life with ferocity.