Underground: The TV Show that gave me Life

Don’t sleep on Underground. Seriously. Note there are spoilers and trigger warnings for sexual assault victims.

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From left to right (as the characters): Henry, Zeke, Rosalee, Noah, Cato, August Pullman, and Moses

The show is hard to summarize because its complex, the cast is large, and so much happens. In short, there are enslaved people who risk everything for freedom, the enslaved people who are left behind, the white people who own them, pursue them, and fight to help them.

What drew me to the show and kept me watching:

The contemporary feel

The show blends contemporary music to what is a period drama. I hadn’t expected it. The opening scene is of Noah running away from slave catchers set to the intense beats of Kanye West. Yes, you read that right. Kanye West. Several songs provided commentary on what was unfolding in the scene. It served as a conduit for me at least to connect with the show and the characters differently. Then again I could expect good music as the singer John Legend is one of the Executive Producers.

The gaspable moments

There are plenty. I audibly gasped at least once or twice per episode. The story telling evokes so many emotions. Disbelief. Exhilaration. Disgust. That’s what compelled me to keep going. I’d finish an episode and immediately start the next one.

It’s depiction of the complexity of enslaved people’s response to slavery and freedom.

Those who are defiant  – At the outset, they are best represented in Noah (played by Aldis Hodge) and Henry (played by Renwick D. Scott II). They want to be free. They want to take their freedom. In a related note, this is very much a sibling relationship. There’s even a moment, while on the run, where they ponder freedom and discuss the importance of a last name. They both agree to take the last name of Hampton thus symbolically cementing their bond as family.

Those who are reluctant – Sam (played by Johnny Ray Gill) and Rosalee (played by Jurnee Smollet-Bell) are initially reluctant because in their minds things on the plantation aren’t so bad. But the idea of freedom is too intoxicating to remain content with their station in life. Both are moved to incredible character arcs.

Those in-between – Pearly Mae, Moses, Cato, and Zeke fall into this category. They like the idea of freedom but realize the complications in getting it present. And the risks. For some, external motivations play a hand in their reason to accept the risk. Whereas for others, internal motivations move them forward. In order: Played by Adina Porter, Mykelti Williamson, Alano Miller, and Theodus Crane.

The varied white experience.

There are rich whites, middle class whites, and poor whites. This is particularly important as it relates to race as you [speaking to white readers here] get a chance to see over the course of different scenes how they react to and perpetuate racism

Rich whites are represented by the Macon family. There is privilege that is built on the labor of enslaved blacks. A cool matter-of-factness about the way of life where they and their cohorts see dollar signs instead of people, where they can coolly talk about sending an 8 year old boy into the fields to work while sipping lemonade. They socialize with other rich whites who see right through the enslaved people who serve them drinks, fan them at parties, and objectify their enslaved bodies. Over drinks they chatter about how slavery is actually good for black people. How their desire for freedom is a disease that must be cured by blood-letting (aka frequent whippings). Macon Family played by Reed Diamon, Andrea Frankle, Mary Katherine Duhon, and Toby Nichols.

The Hawkes are middle class. John is a lawyer. Elizabeth is an educated woman. They are aware of slavery in the abstract. But their life isn’t directly touched by the plight of black people. Over the course of the show, things change. John recognizes his culpability in relation to an enslaved man in one episode. At a point in the past, John was just doing his job as a lawyer by overseeing the separation of a white man’s estate including his property aka his slaves. He separated families and didn’t think anything of it. John said to his wife Elizabeth, “The worst day of this man’s life was just another Tuesday at the office for me.” Hawkes family played by Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw.

In living their lives, they are a part of a system that perpetuates white supremacy that condones slavery and actively works to dehumanize enslaved people. They are presented with the choice: now that they are “woke” to the problem what do they do?

Then there are the poor whites like Bill (played by P.J. Marshall) or August Pullman (Christopher Meloni). Bill works as an overseer on the Macon plantation. Under his direction, the plantation produces greater yields of cotton. This is impressive to the rich whites but his way of speaking and mannerisms are a reminder that while he is white, he is not “one of them.” But his source of pride is built on the backs *literally* of enslaved blacks. He handles these slights by his economic superiors by exerting his authority over enslaved blacks. One memorable example of this is his near rape of Rosalee. He may not be rich but at least he is white. And in a world of black and white, white trumps black every time. August is a man of contradiction. He owns an enslaved man name Jay who is considered a close family friend, a mentor but yet he has no qualms about catching, killing and collecting money as a slave catcher.

A lot rides on this peculiar institution called slavery and enslaved black bodies. It’s inescapable, interwoven into the very fabric of American history and culture. Yet, its ironic how today’s society wants to minimize it. To dismiss it. To avoid facing the awful reality of this country’s history.

No one is 100% good or 100% bad.

The main cast aka those who you spend the most screen time with are fleshed out characters more or less. Some of their motivations and history are revealed but not used necessarily to explain away their actions. All of them are presented with a choice. Often times those choices end with some one being injured and/or dead.

Characters

Two characters, in particular, spoke to me: Rosalee and Ernestine (played by Amirah Vann). For me, they were the window by which to understand the complexity of the the black woman experience in slavery and the pressures of living in “The Big House.” For context, they play mother and daughter, Ernestine and Rosalee respectively.

Rosalee

She starts out the show largely (or seemingly) submissive. Quick with the yes ma’ams and no ma’ams. Clean. Polite. But there are glimmers of something more. Her storyline consists of pivotal moments that unlock a key into her inner life. When she does speak, one can’t help but hear the pain of slavery. She is reminded, as many of the enslaved at various points, that they are not free. That their physical and emotional well-being is tied to the whims of another person. A white person.  rosealee

A near rape experience reveals the fighter in her. Everything was slowly building to this awful crescendo. The show doesn’t show what happens but, as a woman, it filled me with dread and my breathe literally caught in my throat. Her experience is a sad, often unspoken reality of slavery. In the eyes of a white man, her body was not her own. And, to defend herself against an attack would be extremely detrimental to her. Even her death because white lives mean more than black lives. <- Let that line sit with you for a second.

____________________________

Just because they treat you like you dumb, don’t mean you is.

____________________________

Sam says these words to his younger brother James after a day of picking cotton. He tells the little boy this to remind him of who he is. He’s smart. He’s capable. And a subtle reminder to not let white people or slavery define who you are. This is the line that I think of when it comes to Rosalee. Not that she is dumb but that she didn’t think herself capable of doing the things she did while on the run.

She proves her mettle time and time again, not only to her fellow runaways but to herself. Who she is by season’s end is not the same person we meet at the beginning. There’s a boldness. A fire and fierce determination.

Ernestine

Ernestine is clever. Never forget that. Originally, she wasn’t a character I was drawn to.  She moves the chess pieces to protect her children while painfully aware that there is very little she can do to keep them 100% out of harms way. Again, as an enslaved person, her physical and emotional well-being is dependent on a white person.

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Her story digs at the wound that is the objectification of black female bodies. She uses her body to protect her children. She gives Master Tom what he wants to assuage his lustful desires and in exchange she keeps her kids safe, more or less. It’s transactional. There is no pleasure. At the same time, it’s her body that gives her a small measure of power. Very small. The ability to subtly object. To propose alternate plans. But she can not push for fear of overstepping and risking the punishment of being too “uppity for a [insert n-word].” This is especially made clear with the Reverend Willowset appears at the Macon plantation. He’s a villain. There is tyrannical streak in him. He likens black people to wild horses that need to be broken by any means necessary. He places special emphasis on black women needed to be broken first in order to break the black male….as he casts a long, defiant look at Ernestine. In his estimation, she is just a little too uppity for her own good because she doesn’t seemingly cower to him as a white man.

Like Cato, a despised enslaved person/overseer, Ernestine is a good observer of people. In her dealings with another enslaved woman, Pearly Mae, she reveals how much she knows about the habits of Master Tom. “He wants to be liked. Appreciated.” After Pearly Mae’s encounter, she quickly assess that the situation didn’t go like she thought. So she devises an alternate plan.

Ernestine’s story is heart wrenching as it is powerful. The weight of all this shown as she tries to drink the pain and intense melancholy away. And the near despondency she lapses into when despite her best efforts, one of her children is hanged. Even her reaction to the turn of events at season’s end isn’t one of surprise but quiet resignation. She is a realist and pragmatic. Her subsequent fate is the heavy burden of being enslaved and she is acutely aware of it.

My favorite line in the show comes in the season finale (episode 10).

We ain’t gon be free until we all free.

-Rosalee

Plenty time to watch as season 2 of Underground will premiere in early 2017.

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About Ashley S

I'm an archivist!
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