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Akiva Goldsman on ‘Underground’: America Should Understand That ‘Our Heroes Are Not All White Men’

WGN America’s “Underground” kicked off its Emmy campaign with a For Your Consideration brunch at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Christopher Meloni, Alano Miller, Jessica de Gouw and Amirah Vann attended the screening and panel discussion for TV Academy members, along with creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski and director Anthony Hemingway.

Underground,” which follows a group of men and women who use their ingenuity, power and perseverance to attempt the greatest escape in history, infuses modern day music with the historical Underground Railroad to present the slave story.

“I think by telling the story of the Underground Railroad you have to tell the story of the people who revolted, those who were revolutionaries, so in that way I think people have responded to seeing a different voice,” said Smollet-Bell, who plays Rosalie.

The show has amassed a sizeable fan base, with its premiere setting a record for WGN America.

“It’s been so exciting to know that we could take this narrative that has a specific feeling and reintroduce it in a new way and people are really responding to it,” said Hemingway.

Many of the actors recounted their experiences watching the show versus acting on it, taking away new perspectives.

“It challenges me to be like, ‘If we come from such strength and such courage and those people that we come from were able to achieve what they achieved in spite of the great obstacles they were up against, I have absolutely no excuse in my life and anything that is wrong with our country and our community we have to take responsibility and take it into our own hands and fix it,”‘ said Smollet-Bell.

Smollet-Bell’s co-star Vann added that she has been in awe of “the strength of the time and there being so many heroes.”

“It’s a legacy of resilience, intelligence, family and love,” said Vann, who plays Bell’s onscreen mother. “When I look at that I’m like, ‘Hey everyone, we’ve been looking at this as such a horrific time — it is a horrific time — but out of those horrors came resilience, strength and beauty and that kind of encourages me today.”‘

Though the story is based in the 1800s, Meloni said it’s reflective of the current social and political climate.

“I watch and go, ‘What an obvious issue it was,’ and yet it’s always so difficult,” said Meloni. “We still struggle with the same type of issues where people use tortured language to defend hate and prejudice and bigotry, so I think it’s a never-ending cycle of the human condition.”

The creators explained that they’ve used the series to explore mental enslavement and internal battles slaves had, such as “should I run or should I not run.”

“So much of slavery is about the psychological terror, keeping you enslaved in your mind, and I think that is something we wanted to delve into and deal with because TV is a long form,” said Misha Green, co-creator.

“I think it’s time for America to start understanding that our heroes are not all white men,” added Akiva Goldsman, executive producer. “Our country is built on the shoulders of people of all different colors and this is our opportunity to say that loudly and I’m proud of that.”

Cast members Adina Porter, P.J. Marshall and Christopher Backus and executive producer Mike Jackson were also in attendance.

Academy members and attendees were treated to a gospel performance from Jason McGee and the Choir and brunch following the screening.

“Underground” airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. EST on WGN America.

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