(Note: This review makes reference to some character and plot situations, but does not contain spoilers.)
America has a complex relationship with its own history, especially when it comes to slavery. It is difficult to confront the realities of just how much suffering one human being is capable of inflicting on another. Slavery is a subject many Americans would rather not think about, or else, as Azie Mira Dungey’s Ask a Slave webseries demonstrates, are so badly misinformed about that it may as well have been forgotten. And today, slavery is something many look back on with a mixture of horrified fascination and an unwillingness to accept just how bad things were. Films like Twelve Years a Slave take on the “acceptance” angle, painting a dark, heavy, brutal picture of the realities of the period, unwilling to let viewers escape the truth of what has been done. The “fascination” angle is represented as well in films like Django Unchained, wherein the filmmakers take a kind of dark glee in recapturing the mindset of the time, with some rather uncomfortable results.
Enter WGN America’s new series, Underground, which succeeds in nearly every way that Django Unchained failed.
Both approach a delicate historical subject with the anachronistic shine of modern sensibilities, entertaining the audience with exhilarating sequences of action and peril, however, rather than attempting to brutally portray the institutionalized racism that led to the perpetuation of slavery, Underground keeps its focus purely on the unbreakable humanity of the characters involved. Underground follows the story of Aldis Hodge’s Noah, a slave on the isolated and “inescapable” Macon plantation, who is amassing allies and putting together a daring plan to do the impossible: Escape the plantation and the South, and live in freedom. Intertwined with this plot are those of the complex interpersonal and familial relationships between the estate’s many slaves, the family that owns the plantation, a White abolitionist couple considering taking the dangerous step of harbouring runaway slaves, and a rather mysterious character played by Christopher Meloni whose role in the story and ultimate motivations are not yet clear.
Underground injects an energy and an unexpectedly thrilling sense of optimism into what could otherwise be a rather bleak tale. This is no gritty historical drama. Noah’s burning desire for freedom is infectious and gives the audience something to really root for. This doesn’t mean that the show shies away from the cruelty and injustice of the period. Quite the opposite. The abuse and degradation the slaves suffer is portrayed with frankness and sympathy, but is bolstered emotionally by a strong sense of narrative intention. When acts of violence are committed against slaves on the plantation, it is not simply violence for the sake of violence, or to establish how cruel and villainous the slave owners are, or even to incite in the audience a thirst for comeuppance, as was often the case in Django Unchained. Rather this violence is used in a very sensitive and calculated manner as a means to illuminate the fortitude, courage, and strength of spirit of the slaves that endured this treatment and still kept hope alive for a better future. This is a show with a tremendous sense of purpose. These writers know exactly what they want to say, and how they want to say it, without getting muddled up in any sort of fantasism or misguided idealization of the period, or focusing so tightly on bleak historical accuracy and recreating a world where such cruelty is commonplace that they start to lose sight of the real story: the protagonists’ indomitable human spirit and refusal to accept their lot, no matter the seeming impossibility of their dreams.
Rather than connect the audience with the sense of hopelessness and fear that prevented slaves from running away, Underground instead chooses to explore the psychological obstacles put in place by the slave owners to keep their slaves in line. “Divide and conquer” strategies such as creating a false perception that some slaves (in the house) have it easier than others (in the fields), inspiring some slaves with the false hope that they can one day buy their own freedom, holding the lives of slaves’ children and families as leverage, and promoting some slaves to a position of oversight over others, thereby placing them in the unthinkable situation of having to protect themselves by harming and oppressing their fellows, are all intended to sow mistrust and prevent co-operation. Our protagonists’ refusal to be defeated by these tactics, but to overcome them and find a way to work as a community to ensure their success infuses the show with the surprisingly enjoyable anticipatory excitement of a heist or prison break in the making.
The main challenge in writing about extreme historical discrimination for film or television is the difficulty in capturing the mindset of the oppressors while keeping the focus of the story on the oppressed. In Django Unchained, for example, the slave-owning characters treated their slaves abysmally with no thought to their humanity. However, many of the slaves, particularly the women, weren’t treated as anything more than narrative devices by the filmmakers either: used to make a point, and then discarded, making it difficult to see just what the filmmakers were attempting to achieve by including them. When approaching portrayals of discrimination and marginalization, we should ask: Are these oppressed characters being used to tell the story of a discriminatory practice, or is this discrimination used to give context to the story of these characters? Underground seems to be firmly and powerfully on the side of its characters, allotting each one the agency to be the centre of his or her own story, and not just using them as tools for imparting some backdoor history lesson or writers’ agenda on the viewers, and that commitment to its characters really makes this show shine. Underground is not a story about slavery. It’s a story about freedom. Its characters are not victims of oppression. They are gloriously free men and women just waiting to happen.