‘Break Free’ From A One-Dimensional Portrayal of Slavery: WGN’s new series, “Underground”

‘Break Free’ From A One-Dimensional Portrayal of Slavery: WGN’s new series, “Underground”

In the 1872 narrative, The Underground Rail Road, William Still stated that he owed “it to the cause of Freedom, and to the Fugitives and their posterity” to bring the activities of the Underground to “the public in the most truthful manner…to show what efforts were made and what success was gained for Freedom.” Still believed that in order to fully honor those freed by the Underground Railroad, it was essential to impart the historical memory of slavery and resistance to contemporary readers. WGN’s Underground looks to continue Still’s important work by adapting his self-emancipation narrative for a twenty-first century audience.Underground, which debuted on March 9th, airs Wednesdays at 10pm and is part of a 10-episode first season.

“The Cast of Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

Underground offers viewers a nuanced cast of characters and at its center, Macon Plantation’s black community. In one compelling scene, Noah (Aldis Hodge), an enslaved blacksmith trusted with travel beyond the plantation, but also subject to his enslaver and the black overseer, Cato (Alano Miller), tells Rosalee, the Macon family’s house servant, (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) that “we all pretending in some way.” This formulation alerts viewers to the inner-life of the network of complex individuals that forms the core of this community. The series attempts to portray the emotional lives of enslaved people, beyond days punctuated by labor and other forms of violence. Underground also looks to expose how slavery’s gender and labor differentiation affected the lives of enslaved people. Although the plan of escape seems to be male centered, enslaved women are powerfully portrayed in the series when, in the first episode, wife and mother Pearly Mae (Adina Porter) is shown to be the holder of the word of freedom, not Moses (Mykelti Williamson), the enslaved community’s preacher.

“Mykelti Williamson as Moses and Adina Porter as Pearly Mae in Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

Importantly, Underground portrays slavery as a system sustained by physical, mental, legal, and economic oppression that controlled the daily lives of African Americans and stood at the very center of the politics and economy of the nation. The first episode’s action takes place on the Macon Plantation just as the Supreme Court is considering the fate of Dred Scott, his wife, and two young daughters. William Still’s character demonstrates the crucial role of black abolitionists in the battle against systemic oppression. He not only rallies against harsh policies governing the fate of African Americans like Scott, but he also tries to convince the white anti-slavery lawyer, John Hawkes (Marc Blucas), to join his efforts and pushes Hawkes to advocate for the enslaved through more direct action. Hawkes continues to wrestle with how to advocate for the end of slavery without breaking the law and debates with his wife over whether he can do so by managing his slave-owner brother’s Senate campaign. August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), a white man who appears first as a conductor on the underground, delivers the episode’s first plot twist when he turns out to be a slave catcher—part of what Julie Winch dubbed the “other underground railroad.” Pullman’s earlier discussion of the future with the runaway woman he turns in, therefore, appears to be not so much about a world free of slavery but about the security of his family. This storyline highlights not only the physical and legal dangers of fugitive life but also the precarious economic and social positions of non-planter southern whites and the work many did to uphold the slave system.

“Aldis Hodge as Noah and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in Underground,” Image courtesy of WGN, 2016.

In the wake of recent films like 12 Years a Slave, there has been debate over slavery’s portrayal in popular culture. Critics have pressed the industry and audiences to defend decisions to repeatedly show and watch African American actors enduring the pain and brutality of enslavement. Others argue that the true horror of slavery has yet to be dealt with in all its complexity. Mychal Denzel Smith, for instance, makes the case for more “slavery films,” claiming that “no slavery narrative exists” in American culture because “we would rather pretend we know all there is to know about slavery and move on.” Popular narratives that have circulated since the nineteenth century have so often been historically inaccurate and also socially dangerous, flattening out and covering over the real history of American slavery. By placing enslaved and free black people at the center of resistance to slavery, and making all characters—both black and white—complicated and fully human, Underground has the potential to help viewers understand slavery as a system that shaped so many aspects of the world in which we continue to live. As such, the series has the potential to depict the experiences of those who labored to be free in all of their complexity. That work is still very necessary.


Smith, Mychal Denzel. “Why I’m Ready for More Slavery Films.” The Nation. January 29, 2016. http://www.thenation.com/article/why-im-ready-for-more-slavery-films/.

Still, William. The Underground Rail Road… Philadelphia: Porter and Company, 1872. Archive.org. Accessed March 12, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/undergroundrailr00stil/undergroundrailr00stil_djvu.txt.

Winch, Julie. “Philadelphia and the other Underground Railroad.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 111 (1987): 3-25.

Julia Bernier

Julia Bernier is a PhD candidate in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts--Amherst. She can be reached at juliab@afroam.umass.edu.

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