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WGN’s “Underground”: Groundbreaking Look at Slavery



By: Evette Champion

In the past, Black viewers have voiced their concerns where stories about African Americans tend to have that “when we were slave” story lines, however, the reviews for Underground seems to resonate with the African American community. Why? Because it changes the narrative in every way possible—from the music, the story line, even the camera work isn’t like what we’ve seen before.

Anthony Hemingway said he wanted to defy all expectations when it came to the WGN America series. Hemingway directed four of the episodes, including this week’s premier.

The first thing viewers will note that is different is the black men and women who are enslaved in a plantation in Georgia in 1857 aren’t the typical passive victims we normally see. Instead, a group of them plan their escape by using the famous Underground Railroad.

One of those slaves includes Rosalee, who is played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell. During a panel discussion at the Sundance Film Festival, she said:

“I read about our stories and I always ask myself, ‘Well, what about the people that fought back?’ I have this desire to see us portrayed differently and to see us be revolutionaries… For me this was an opportunity to explore the boldness that I come from.”

Alano Miller, Smollett-Bell’s co-star told NBCBLK:

“For me, ‘Underground’ is a celebration. It is about people taking ownership. It is about our first civil rights movement.”


The series uses music in ways that other shows do not, as it helps drive the emotion and the story that they are trying to tell.

John Legend, a producer for the series, says:

“I’ve written a lot of songs for soundtracks and scores, and it’s always fun to see it connect. When it comes together beautifully, it’s such a powerful moment.”


Underground gives viewers a history lesson about race, enslavement, and the liberation of the African American community without it truly feeling like a lesson of history. It also sheds light on how that blotchy stain of slavery and racism is still felt today when people talk about the Black Lives Matter movement or the protesting when another young black man is murdered by the hands of the police.

Perhaps another reason Underground is unlike other historical themed shows of the time is that it takes a theme we have seen time and time again and it turns everything upside down. Instead of showing the slaves as helpless, they are shown as strong individuals fighting back and revolting. Perhaps it is more relevant today because that is kind of what we see happening today—the African American community is standing up and taking a stand.

As Miller said to NBCBLK:

“And so I’m hoping the show continues to heal and that it gets conversations out there and that it inspires young people and older to brave those gaps and really get down to the root of what’s going on in our society.”

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