NY TIMES – It can be hard to drum up excitement for a show that tackles a subject as upsetting as slavery. Even putting “slavery” and “excitement” together in a sentence can feel problematic. But the two words are not mutually exclusive on “Underground,” WGN America’s new series about a group of enslaved men and women who embark on a harrowing escape from a Georgia plantation via the Underground Railroad.
The show, which had its premiere on Wednesday, is set in 1857 and pulls from published slave narratives. But it is best described as an action-thriller, centered around a group of people who use their wits and meager resources to risk their lives for freedom. Misha Green, the show’s co-creator and co-writer, has said that one of her goals was to portray those who risked the dangerous journey as American superheroes instead of victims.
In separate phone interviews, Aldis Hodge, who plays the lead character, Noah, and the musician John Legend, an executive producer, talked about what they learned during the making of “Underground,” and how the current TV landscape led to the unlikely show’s existence. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
What attracted you to this project?
JOHN LEGEND The Underground Railroad is something we’ve all heard about, but to explore it in this way — through a really powerful and really well-written television show — was irresistible to me.
ALDIS HODGE I loved how colorful and well-developed the characters were. Because especially for this time period and this subject matter, it’s kind of hard to make this subject matter something you want to come back to. But the difference in how they sort of executed things was, we always see the victimization of enslaved Americans back in that time. This is the first time, to me, that I’ve seen these people celebrated for their strength and their intelligence.
Why do you think something like this hasn’t been done before?
LEGEND With the proliferation of cable television — with all these different networks and all of them trying to make really strong original programming — I think there are just more outlets for a diverse range of stories and a diverse range of voices. And I think there is a little bit more freedom than there may have been when there was a more constrained group of networks buying shows.
Do you think anyone wants to watch a show about the most terrible period in American history?
LEGEND I think if it was just a sad story, then they probably wouldn’t. But it’s a story of triumph, it’s a story of courage, it’s a story of heroism, and I think it’s pretty inspiring to watch.
HODGE When I first got the audition, I was like, “How is this show about slavery going to work for six years? How are we going to keep coming back to this subject?” And then I read the script, and I said, “Oh, this is different.” Once people see it, they’ll realize, you know, first and foremost this is an action-heavy drama. And that’s what really drives the story: The danger, the mystery, the pumping pulse.
Was there anything you learned about the institution of slavery during the making of this show that you didn’t know before?
LEGEND I minored in African-American history and culture when I was in college, so it’s definitely something I’ve read about. I’ve read slave narratives before, but because of the research that all of us had to do for creating this series and preparing to launch the series, it’s been exciting to really learn the individual stories of those who chose to run away, and we incorporated a lot of those details in into these fictional characters on the show.
HODGE The mental enslavement, which is kind of the biggest kicker, and how people are broken, that is something that we really dug deep into. You have a plantation where you have 10 white people and you have about 50 or 60 black people. The automatic thought was, “Why didn’t they raise up? Why didn’t they overpower? They had the numbers.” But really these people, their hope was broken. Their sense of love was broken. Their appreciation for who they were was broken. And when you change somebody’s mind, you can control whatever they do. You can control what they feel. You can control their self value. And that’s something that was really surprising to me.
Why did you use contemporary music in this show? It opens with a Kanye West song.
LEGEND Well I think we wanted music that still felt as if it works sonically with the action that’s going on, and the action was so energetic and urgent and powerful in the way it’s presented — visually it’s so powerful — we wanted the music to be able to match that, and we thought it would enhance what you see on the screen if we were able to not just restrict the music to period music.
HODGE Here’s contemporary music that you’re familiar with, and you’re watching a time frame that you’re unfamiliar with. With contemporary music, you automatically get connected. It connects you to the emotion of the characters. When this show opens to “Black Skinhead,” which was in the script from the beginning, it makes so much sense, given the scene, given what’s happening. And I think for a younger audience that may not understand the feeling [of the character], as soon as they hear the music, they’ll get it. They’ll say, “Oh, this is why this makes sense.”
Between “12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained” and the coming “The Birth of a Nation” movie, does it seem like Hollywood only gives awards about the suffering of black people?
LEGEND Part of it is that a lot of awards are skewed toward historical dramas, and if you look at the history of black folks in America, slavery obviously has been an important part. Given that there are a lot of historical films that make it into that kind of Oscar type of movie, it’s probably not surprising that the characters black folks play are struggling. Now, the answer to that is us continuing to have more opportunities to create a more diverse range of art that is inclusive of that struggle, but also can tell other stories that reflect what’s going on in our history and our communities.