A choir stood in front of a screen depicting cotton and water, singing “Oh Happy Day” and a collection of African-American spirituals at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday night, setting the stage for the premiere of WGN America’s “Underground,” a new series telling the story of slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
While many previous film and TV projects have explored slave narratives, the stars of “Underground” contend the series brings a new perspective to the topic.
“To be called a slave is to be called a thing. It’s like being cattle or a machine,” said Aldis Hodge. “We depicted it from the viewpoint that these people are enslaved Americans, and we celebrate their strengths.”
Hodge said this is the first time audiences will see slaves not victimized but glorified for fighting back, for their intelligence and for their courage.
From episode one, the characters can be seen setting the stage for a story that seeks to empower its audience. Hodge’s co-star Smollett-Bell took pride in the fact that the story tells a different side of American history – one often swept under the rug.
“The Underground Railroad is one sentence – one paragraph – in history books, and they sum it up to one person, the amazing legend of Harriet Tubman,” said Smollett-Bell. “But there were thousands of people who risked their lives and who were actively changing our nation.”
The show’s creators, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, were also in attendance along with Anthony Hemingway, director of four episodes.
After researching the Underground Railroad and the stories of the people involved, Green and Pokaski felt the story would be appropriate for today’s climate.
“We wanted people to see that it’s not about the occupation. It’s about the revolution,” said Green. “One of the questions we found (interesting) was, ‘How active is your activism?’”
Co-creator Pokaski was drawn to the strength of the characters and the impact their stories could have today. “(The 1850s were) a time where people had less than we had. But, they were brave enough to say, ‘I’m going to run 600 miles to take my freedom back,” said Pokaski. “Hopefully, it inspires a little bravery in us and other people when they see it.”
Other series stars in attendance included Amirah Vann, Alano Miller, James Lafferty, Mykelti Williamson and Renwick D. Scott II.
The series takes place in Louisiana and used real slave quarters for filming. The actors and producers agreed that every day presented a new challenge – especially dealing with hot temperatures, humidity and swamps.
The premiere concluded with an after-party atop the Ace Hotel, which included a live DJ, “Underground” decor, freshly made ice cream, hors d’oeuvres and drinks.
“Underground” debuts March 9 on WGN America.