John Legend Starts Campaign to Revive ‘Underground’

John Legend is renewing his efforts to revive the WGN America series “Underground,” on which he was an executive producer.

Legend posted an op-ed on Wednesday morning stating that the show, which focused on The Underground Railroad, is even more important now given events in places like Charlottesville.

“We’ve had a debate about the Civil War and how we remember the Confederate leaders who provoked the War in order to perpetuate the evil institution of slavery,” he wrote. “How do we tell the stories of this era? Who is celebrated? Who is ignored? Do we give hallowed public space to those who fought to tear the country apart so that millions would remain in shackles? Or do we celebrate those who risked their life in the pursuit of freedom and equality.”

He went on to critique Sinclair Broadcasting, which purchased WGN parent company Tribune Media. “Sinclair has pursued a strategy of buying up local networks and moving their news coverage to fit their far-right agenda,” he wrote. “In addition, they’ve bought Tribune Media, the parent company of WGN America and immediately turned away from high-quality original dramas such as Underground and Outsiders in favor of cheaper unscripted entertainment.”

“Underground” was cancelled in May after Sinclair bought Tribune. Despite considerable critical praise, the cancellation came as little surprise, given the fact that WGN America had already canceled their other original series, “Outsiders,” which enjoyed higher ratings than “Underground” in its second season. Sony Pictures TV tried shopping the series to networks like OWN and BET, though neither deal came to pass.

It was created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, who also executive produced alongside Legend, Akiva Goldsman, Tory Tunnell, Joby Harold, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius and Anthony Hemingway. Sony Pictures TV produced.

Read Legend’s full op-ed below.

In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, America has had a conversation about history and memory, monuments and flags, slavery and freedom. We’ve had a debate about the Civil War and how we remember the Confederate leaders who provoked the War in order to perpetuate the evil institution of slavery. How do we tell the stories of this era? Who is celebrated? Who is ignored? Do we give hallowed public space to those who fought to tear the country apart so that millions would remain in shackles? Or do we celebrate those who risked their life in the pursuit of freedom and equality.

As storytellers, producers and creators of content for film and television, we have the power to take control of the narrative. As an executive producer of the critically-acclaimed television series Underground, we’ve been proud to celebrate those like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass who were true American heroes whose legacy we can be proud of. Their words and their actions helped make it possible for my ancestors to be free. I’m honored and humbled by the opportunity to make sure they are not forgotten. Along with the stories of historical luminaries, our series features fictionalized characters and plot lines directly inspired by the courageous real narratives of the first integrated civil rights movement in the United States, the movement to abolish slavery.

In its first two seasons, Underground was undeniably a hit series, setting ratings records for WGN America, receiving rave reviews and sparking conversation in the media. It was screened at the White House and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was acknowledged by the NAACP, NABJ, and many other highly respected institutions, and generated widespread engagement on social media as a trending topic during every new episode… yet here we are, still fighting for a future for the series.

How did we get here? WGN America was bought by media conglomerate Sinclair Communications. Sinclair has pursued a strategy of buying up local networks and moving their news coverage to fit their far-right agenda. In addition, they’ve bought Tribune Media, the parent company of WGN America and immediately turned away from high-quality original dramas such as Underground and Outsiders in favor of cheaper unscripted entertainment.

We know there is still an appetite for high-quality scripted dramas on network and cable tv and streaming services. We also know that, in this particular moment in history, there is an urgent need to tell the powerful story of the Underground Railroad. Even today – in the 21st century – we rely on a sort of underground network of individuals and organizations willing to put themselves at risk to help those who are not yet seen as equals in the eyes of the United States government. When our elected officials tell undocumented individuals who boost our economy, who strengthen our workforce, and who see the U.S. as the only home they have ever known, that they are at risk of deportation, those individuals are forced to live in the shadows. They may be sent to a land they can’t remember, that they fled in fear, or in some instances where they have never even set foot. Who will tell their stories when they are made to feel unsafe when they go to work, drop their kids off at school, seek medical help, or report a crime? Putting a spotlight on these types of stories creates an opportunity for recognition, understanding, discussion and learning, bringing a humanity and context that allows people to experience our past and present in a way that is not possible in other media.

For all of these reasons and more, the cast, producers and our studio Sony Pictures remain committed to a future for Underground because of a belief that this story is important and invaluable… and it remains our hope that not only is there a future for this show, but for many others like it.

Let’s #SaveUnderground so that we can continue to inspire and educate the American people about these true American heroes.

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