Thanks to this post from the Journal of the Civil War Era, I finally watched the first two episodes of WGN’s new television series, Underground last night. I must say, it was surprisingly good. Afterwards, I went looking for what other historians had to say about it, and came across this blog from the African American Intellectual History Society. I agree with pretty much everything the author writes here, especially when they point out that there is a lot of slave historiography on display in the show.
As I have argued many times before, I think that what is missing in much of our newer pop cultural presentations of slavery is just how powerful and resilient the enslaved community was. Further, it seems that unless slaves are running away or violently resisting, they are seen as submissive automatons. My initial fear about Underground was that because of the focus of the show, it would fuel the perception that only those slaves that ran away were heroic. But what I discovered in the first two episodes was a vibrant enslaved community, practicing the art of deception to survive on a daily basis, and not allowing masters or the institution of slavery to define them. Of course the protagonists are planning an escape, but the other slaves around them are not the personality-less drones that we see surrounding our main characters in 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained. There are different modes of survival on display and a dynamic culture that the enslaved have created for themselves outside of white control. The characters are three dimensional, and that surprisingly includes a slave catcher that provides a really good opportunity for the show to depict how non-slaveholders in the South were also impacted by the slaveholding economy (and the role they played in buttressing the system). There are two white abolitionists that will no doubt become more important as the show goes on, but surprisingly they are by far the two least interesting characters at this point. This is not the tale of the “white saviors” that we so often get in Hollywood stories that involve African American history.
Yes, the music is jarringly anachronistic, but sometimes this does work to good effect. I also have no doubt that historical accuracy will become more questionable as the series progresses, and it all does feel a bit too much like lusty pulp fiction, but as the blog above notes, historians should get behind this series because “we should publicly support any endeavor that breaks down misinterpretations of slavery.” Agreed, but not just because we need to make people understand how brutal the system was (destroying the Lost Cause’s “Moonlight and Magnolia’s” depiction of the Old South), but also because we need depictions of how powerful and heroic the enslaved were, even if they did not engage in an overt rebellion or run away. As the story progresses and our protagonists eventually do flee the planation, I hope that we still get scenes involving the ones they left behind, or other non-fleeing slaves they encounter along the way. Based on what I have seen so far, I’m guessing we will.
When I went looking for reviews of the show, I was struck by the number of commentators that expressed surprise that a series about slavery could be so entertaining. (Like this one, for example, or this one, or this ). Most point out that watching movies or shows about slavery is often numbing and difficult to get through. They credit this show for being different because it adds in the element of a prison break or heist, which is true, but I think much of their surprise is coming from the fact that this slave community is more accurately depicted than what we have seen in recent films. Again, I feel that this is because slaves are often portrayed as weak and totally dominated and docile, rather than as the cleaver, resilient, and powerful individuals that they were. The very fact that these reviewers are surprised by what they are finding on Underground is the very reason why we have to get behind this show.