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Monitor: Escape series Underground shatters the museum glass on slavery

For Monitor this week, Aaron Yap tackles Underground, a escape drama that seeks to combine modern times with history.

When Quentin Tarantino released his blaxploitation-cum-spaghetti western opus Django Unchained in 2012, he had a justification for his typically incendiary, controversy-baiting approach to one of the most awful and shameful periods in American history. “When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arms-length quality to them. I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it.”

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And shatter that glass he did. The cartoony, politically incorrect bluster of Django Unchained marked a sharp contrast to that other antebellum period trip of the same year, Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. It was unlike pretty much any notably prestigious screen depiction of the subject, from Steven Spielberg’s Amistad all the way back to Roots, the 1977 milestone miniseries that remains the quintessential document of the slave experience on TV.

Django Unchained was an exploitation film at heart, its throat-grabbing, overwrought tenor channeled the same disreputable energy as Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo, or for a more extreme example: Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s noxious, utterly gob-smacking 1971 pseudo-documentary Goodbye Uncle Tom. One could call the latter The Triumph of the Will of slave cinema, a work so enraging and offensive Pauline Kael deemed it “the most specific and rabid incitement to race war.”    

Though less likely to stir up the same level of outrage, WGN America’s Underground deserves to be part of the same conversation – particularly with the currently turbulent politics of racial representation in movies and television. Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the show tackles the under-examined history of the Underground Railroad, an intricate network of escape routes used by slaves in the 19th century. But this is no arty, HBO-style prestige costume drama.

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Not too far off the soapy, overbaked tone of Empire, it’s unabashedly a genre piece. A pacey, pulpy potboiler fueled by a boisterous sense of empowerment that the best blaxploitation movies of the ‘70s can offer. The characters are smart, determined, and easy to root for. Without sanitising the punishing realities its enslaved protagonists suffered through – whippings, sexual assault, and a dead baby all figure in the first ep – Underground seeks to entertain first and foremost.

Strip away the period/subject trappings and what you have is essentially an old-fashioned men-on-a-mission caper. In fact, Underground can’t help but draw similarities to the soon-to-be-rebooted mid-2000s FOX series Prison Break, which sold us the preposterous idea of an inmate’s full-body tattoo serving as a blueprint for an escape plan. Here, it’s a spiritual, printed in blood on fabric, that requires decoding by its escapees, a group of seven slaves at a plantation in pre-Civil War Georgia.

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A commanding, fiery Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) plays Noah, a fast-thinking blacksmith who sets the plot – a treacherous 600-mile journey to freedom – into motion. He heads up the solidly cast “Macon 7”, which includes wily teenager Henry (Renwick Scott), gentle giant strongman Zeke (Theodus Crane) and one-eyed preacher Moses (Mykelti Williamson). Also along for the ride are Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a house slave who develops a romantic interest in Noah, and Cato (Alano Miller), whose position as a black plantation overseer adds some thorny dynamics into the mix.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the white characters have less interesting parts. Christopher Meloni is a gruff slave catcher-with-a-conscience who’s hired by plantation owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) to track down Noah. Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw are husband-and-wife abolitionists whom I seem to tune out of whenever they appear. Even acknowledging the assistance of characters such as theirs in establishing the Underground Railroad, there’s still an uncomfortable hint of the “white saviour” syndrome so common in Hollywood here. The story of the Macon 7 is compelling enough – it would be tighter and fiercer if these B-plot lines were shortened, or excised completely.

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Underground’s biggest drawback is John Legend’s ill-fitting music supervision. Featuring hip-hop artists like Common and Kanye West, who originally were to supervise, the music is often gracelessly juxtaposed with the action. At its worst, it destroys the illusion of its otherwise handsomely produced period setting. The intentions of bridging past and present, I get. The audacity, I get. And staying true to WGN America’s trend of anachronistically soundtracked shows like Salem and Manhattan, sure. Sorry, it just does not work for me at all.

On shows like Manhattan and The Knick, atmospheric electronic scores fused beautifully with the stories that dealt with the advancement of science and technology. When Underground throws a club banger like Glitch Mob’s ‘We Are the Wild Ones’ over a governor’s ball in 1857, the effect is like a desperate DJ trying to get the guests of a masquerade party grinding on the dancefloor.

Fortunately, these iffy stylistic choices – which extend to director Anthony Hemingway’s fondness for Michael Bay-esque colour-saturated flash cuts – are minimal and do not detract from my overall enjoyment of the show.

Underground isn’t high art but it’s never boring. It gets the right kind of tawdry-crazy elements, like staging a mini-heist around the slave fetish of an elderly plantation owner, or lingering over head house slave Ernestine’s (Amirah Vann) seduction of Macon in a basement wine cellar. It can be earnest, corny, exciting. It does its part shattering the museum glass, reminding us that crafting entertainment based on historical atrocities need not dishonour the memory of its victims, but can embolden their plight on a gut, if not cerebral level.


The final episode of Underground arrives express to Lightbox tonight, click here to watch:

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