“We’re telling a story of people who had a lot less than what we have, but they stuck their neck out for what they thought was right.”–Joe Pokaski, writer and producer for WGN America’s “Underground”
So who came up with the idea of doing a dramatic, fictionalized television series about the Underground Railroad? “It started with me,” said Misha Green during a phone interview with Message last week. Green is one of the executive producers of “Underground”, the new show on WGN America that explores slavery, the abolition movement and the famous escape network known as the Underground Railroad. The series stars are Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollet-Bell and Chris Meloni. Underground’s first episode aired March 9th. Nine more episodes will air on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Central.
Though one of the few African-American female showrunners in Hollywood, Green has a solid record as a writer and producer. Her credits include the sci-fi thrillers “Heroes” and “Helix”, and “The Sons of Anarchy”, a gritty drama that chronicled the lives and crimes of a fictional motorcycle gang. Green took the “Underground” idea to Joe Pokaski, a writer and producer with whom she had worked before. Pokaski embraced the idea and they got to work.
“We just kept finding more and more stories,” Green said. “Truth is stranger than fiction, and it just was so ripe for a perfect television series.” Basing a television series on the slavery and abolition may seem like a risky choice. Concerted efforts have been made to remove slavery from textbooks – or to downplay its relevance – in Texas and Tennessee. Some commentators, such as black conservative Derryck Green, have complained about “race fatigue.” Disturbing racial incidents even have flared up at Republican campaign events this year, suggesting that at least some of the electorate may not care to watch a show about the brutal commodification of racism, what some have called “America’s original sin.”
Yet, two fairly recent and very different movies about slavery, “Django Unchained” and “12 Years A Slave,” were critical and commercial successes. The raucous “Django” made more than $162 million at the U.S. box office, and more than $425 million worldwide. The much more sober “12 Years” was produced for $20 million and made more than $56 million in U.S. ticket sales and more than $187 million globally. Even “Roots”, arguably the granddaddy of this genre of movies and television shows, will be rebooted later this Spring for a new generation of viewers. So despite the persistence of the revisionists, claims of fatigue and bursts of intolerance, there is room for stories on the screen that tell the truth about the African-American experience. And that means there’s room for “Underground’s” producers to tell the unique story about the racially integrated abolitionist network that set some slaves free.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” said Green about the Underground Railroad story.
“This isn’t about the occupation. It’s about the revolution.” That may be the angle that will intrigue viewers the most. Unquestionably, the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement were revolutionary. They were bold, high-risk slaps-in-the-face to a ruthless, pernicious, blood-thirsty system. The modern equivalent may be Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), a U.S.-based organization which has been called “the new abolitionists” for its efforts to free children being trafficked for sex. It’s estimated that the entire human trafficking industry, which includes those being exploited for labor as well as sex, generates $150 billion annually. So while “Underground” is very much a historical saga, there is an immediate relevance to its message that some viewers may pick up. Still, creating a television series about America’s “peculiar institution” of slavery and the resulting abolitionist movement seems an unlikely feat.
“It wasn’t until we put pen to paper and wrote the scripts on spec [without a contractual commitment to produce the series] that people got what we were trying to do,” Pokaski explained. “We keep calling it the most heroic story ever told in American history.”
Slavery built and defined this nation. It also nearly destroyed it, splitting the Union in two for a short time. The many horrors of the American slave trade left an indelible mark on its Africans victims and their descendants. Nevertheless, some found the courage to escape – and like Harriet Tubman, went back to rescue others. And a small contingent of white people risked their lives to help them. “We’re telling a story of people who had a lot less than what we have, but they stuck their neck out for what they thought was right,” said Pokaski.
“They did the bravest thing possible. In the age where we equate social justice with a Facebook post, I’m hoping that maybe this will challenge people to be a bit bolder and stand up for what they believe in.”