‘Underground’ traces path from slavery to freedom

Wednesday, Jan 13, 2016


USA TODAY – The Underground Railroad, a path and a movement that allowed people to escape slavery in pre-Civil War America, forms the center of WGN America’s Underground (March 9).


Actors in the drama, which opens at a Georgia plantation in 1857, Friday told writers at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour that they appreciate the empowerment of the characters, who are charting their own course to freedom.


“It glorifies everybody’s strength,” said Aldis Hodge, who plays Noah, one of the escaping group’s leaders. “Noah realizes everybody around him has something he doesn’t have. It’s going to take a sense of community to figure this out.”


Figuring out a 600-mile trek to freedom must have been a daunting task, said Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who plays Rosalee.


“It was so mind-blowing how brilliant they were,” she said of people, often deprived of the chance to learn to read and write, who ingeniously used the position of stars, the direction of moss growth on trees and songs with clues to find their way.


Singer and musician John Legend, who won an Oscar for the song Glory in Selma, is an executive producer. He produced the song, Heaven’s Door, that is used in Underground’s opening credits. Music for the series is designed to feel current and timeless, “not too stuck in the period,” Legend said. “We feel like the story is relevant and meaningful now. We do not want it to feel like you’re going to a museum.”


Executive producer Akiva Goldsman criticized the tendency to use words such as slavery and Holocaust to describe lesser, current situations, saying “we live in a world with no shortage of hypocrisies. It’s the corruption of words that begins the corruption of ideas” and leads society toward repeating past mistakes.


Co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski said Underground tries to stay as true as possible to an era that producers and cast feel isn’t given as much time as it deserves in the education system. Green finds Underground’s story uplifting, despite the cruelty and desperation of the era.


“It’s not about occupation. It’s a story about revolution … that’s exciting and hasn’t been told,” she said. With the involvement of some whites, the Underground Railroad represents “the first integrated civil rights movement.”


Legend finds the story inspiring. “What makes this powerful television is the extent of adversity these people face and (that they) find the courage to overcome,” he said. “It’s so dramatic and stark and moving.”

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