“Underground” Highlights the Complexities of Life Under Slavery

This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!

Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is backed into a corner. After rescuing her brother James and burning down the Macon plantation, she’s surrounded by slave catchers and her overseer Cato, who also escaped but proved to be a traitor. Rosalee survived a gun battle, but is now outnumbered. WGN’s breakthrough series Underground has captured critics and garnered a devoted fan base through powerful story lines and blockbuster action. Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the series premiered in March 2016 and instantly gained cult status among viewers who were eager for more stories about Black history. 

Slave narratives have drawn large audiences since the epic multinight series Roots aired in January 1977. Despite the popularity of historical stories about Black people, there remains a segment of viewers resistant to slavery-related material—the consensus is that there are not enough stories about successful Black people to balance out the slave stories. But Underground opened many people’s eyes to the complexities of life under slavery. In the series, we’ve found the love, hope, and determination that most of us weren’t exposed to in history class—if we were lucky enough to get details about our own history at all. 

In just two seasons, I’ve fallen in love with the show’s characters, including Amirah Vann as matriarch Ernestine, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as emerging revolutionary Rosalee, and Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman. As the sole enslaved female character that is given sexual agency, Vann’s portrayal of Ernestine is espe-cially revolutionary. Enslaved women were unable to consent to sex with their owners, but Ernestine has cultivated a sexual relationship with her master, Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), and they’ve had two children together. “Stine,” as she’s often called, uses her relationship with the master to influence his decisions and make life a little easier for her children.

Stine’s story line also explores how slavery harmed Black men, who in turn harmed Black women. For instance, Stine’s boyfriend copes with abuse from the overseer by abusing her. In turn, she begins using opiates to cope with her pain, a cycle that mirrors how many Black men and women still interact today. Stine is trying to survive while mentally drowning under the weight of continuous abuse. 

However, Underground’s depiction of Harriet Tubman presents a different image of formerly enslaved women. Hinds’s portrayal goes beyond what’s provided in history books about the abolitionist. Instead, the actor brings different aspects of Tubman to life, including her stoicism, bravery, no-nonsense assertiveness, and infamous trigger finger. One episode reveals the harrowing tale of Tubman’s life, including her first husband’s betrayal and the accident that caused her blackouts. Rosalee is Tubman’s mentee, and she has similarly gone through hell. 

When we first meet Rosalee, she’s a sheltered house slave who’s been protected from harm by Ernestine. But after Bill, the plantation’s overseer, attempts to rape Rosalee, she escapes the Macon plantation with Noah (Aldis Hodge) and several other enslaved people. Her fellow runaways question her strength and determination, but she battles leeches, engages in gunfights, and brawls with slave catchers—while pregnant—and eventually becomes a freedom fighter in the Underground Railroad. Her journey from house slave to activist is a triumph that undeniably offers an evolution of the slave narrative on TV.

Enslaved people weren’t one-dimensional. They cried, had sex, progressed in their understanding of slavery, and revolted against their masters. Underground truly captures that complexity. The show also doesn’t conceal the raw, unflinching, and persistent atrocities of slavery. The show sizzled with action, suspense, phenomenal performances, and creative directing. 

Despite being WGN’s most highly rated show, Underground has been canceled. Dedicated viewers have launched a Change.org petition to urge other networks to pick up the show. Until its third season has officially been given the green light, catch up on the first two seasons on Hulu.

Director: Anthony Hemingway,
Greg Yaitanes, Salli Richardson-Whitfield,
Kate Woods, Christopher Meloni,
and Lawrence Trilling
{ WGN }
Released: March 9, 2016

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This article was published in Facts Issue #76 | Fall 2017
by Veronica Hilbring
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Veronica Hilbring is a Black feminist writer from Chicago. When she's not writing, she enjoys traveling, really good television and those summer nights.

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