The next time you board a plane, hop on a train or sail on a ship to your chosen destination, take a moment to consider how we, descendants of slaves, got the freedom of travel that we enjoy today. Think of the courageous revolutionaries, both black and white, who risked everything to break the chains that kept Africans enslaved in America.
The heart-pounding story of how an estimated 100,000 slaves broke free in the early to mid-1800s is one of this nation’s greatest untold thrillers. This month, WGN America is bringing the dramatic, historic tale to television in the new series Underground. “For me, I’m humbled to be a part of it. I’m honored to be a part of it,” says actor Aldis Hodge, known for his role as MC Ren in the 2015 biopic Straight Out of Compton. is so much to be proud of, and that’s something I love.”
Hodge plays Noah in the series that premieres Wednesday, March 9 at 10 p.m. (ET). As a blacksmith on a Georgia plantation, he is driven by dreams of freedom and formulates an escape plan. Hodge wants to share the inspiration he got from taking part in the Underground series produced by Sony Pictures Television and Tribune Studios. “This is a project that made me proud of my culture in a way that I never realized before. It educated me so much about my culture, and that’s something I hope I can inspire with the younger generation,” says Hodge.
Members of the Underground cast, that also includes Jurnee Smollett-Bell, joined the program’s creators and corporate sponsors last month in Washington, D.C. They celebrated the series with a panel discussion and special screening during a Black History Month event at the White House. Executive producers and writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski set out to produce a bold, thrill-a-minute television drama. In doing so, they brought to life the difficult choices and circumstances surrounding a slave’s decision to run and an Underground Railroad activist’s decision to help. “You can’t just stand by,” says Green. “It’s a hard choice to make, but it’s the only one we can make for the country to move forward. That’s what you see when you see Underground.
The filming of the series in real slave barracks on the grounds of Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge lends authenticity to the pre-Civil War setting. Actor Christopher Meloni, who plays August Pullman, recalls how being in Louisiana gave him greater insight into the poisonous slavery system, the struggle for survival, and the bravery of the people who took or aided the flight to freedom for their families and the future of a nation. “It was the people who were following the truth. People lost their lives over it,” says Meloni. “It made me think of Martin Luther King. And it made me think of whenever people touch on the truth it’s the third rail and people die for it.”
Noted historians and scholars also took part in the panel discussion about the upcoming series. They provided in-depth background on the network of meeting places, safe houses and people that became the Underground Railroad. The cast and creators, including executive producer John Legend, shared insights into the complexity of the fictional characters featured in the series. “You understand the motivations of the mother who decides that it is better for her and for her children to figure out how to survive on the plantation and not try to leave. You understand why those who want to leave and choose to leave, why they do it,” says Legend.
The 10-episode program takes viewers along with the runaways on a 600-mile race to escape slave hunters and the real threat of torture or death. “You don’t ever know what is going to happen in the next episode and it’s shocking,” says actor Amirah Vann who plays Ernestine.
Nail-biting suspense is what Green, Pokaski and the other executive producers wanted to create in the fictional stories based on historical facts. Slaves and abolitionists defied federal laws, employing codes and secrets that were fiercely guarded to move men and women north into free states or Canada. “They’re remarkable, amazing and are true American heroes. I wanted every opportunity to celebrate that, to highlight that and give it the swag that it deserves,” says Anthony Hemingway, executive producer and director.
Underground also has the power to educate as well as to remind viewers of an issue that still impacts the freedom of people around the world. Human trafficking today is estimated to be a $28 billion enterprise. “There’s a lot of work to be done and we can look to the past for people who were brave enough to stand up and say, ‘I’m going to do that work. I’m going to fight for what I believe in and I’m going to risk it all for the next generation,'” says Pokaski.
To learn more about the journey to freedom, you can also plan a trip to Cincinnati, OH to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Information is available at http://www.freedomcenter.org.
Photo credits: Phyllis Armstrong, Larry French/Getty Images and WGN America