PBS’s The Great War finished strong, and WGN’s Underground broke the mold by trying something bold

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Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman in WGN’s Underground

WooHoo! I had a fun time in front of the TV last night (I am ashamed to admit how long I was in front of it). First, the Boston Celtics (I am a long time fan) secured the #1 seed in the NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs (but this isn’t a sports blog, so that’s all I’ll say about that), then I really enjoyed the last episode of PBS’s The Great War, and lastly I was amazed that WGN’s Underground spent an entire episode solely on an abolitionist speech by Harriet Tubman. It was truly original.

All three episodes of The Great War were riveting, and perhaps one of the finest American Experience documentaries in years (and that is saying a lot, considering the high quality of most of their shows). It touched on a wide-array of homefront and military topics, and I was not disappointed in its coverage of Alice Paul and the Woman’s Suffrage movement. It also did a bit on the spread of Jazz to Paris by African American troops, though I would have liked to have seen more. Unfortunately, Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to lead troops and Wilson’s rejection of his offer was strangely missing, as was Pershing’s trip to LaFayette’s grave. But the show was particularly strong in how it handled Wilson’s hypocritical treatment of dissenters here in the United States, and especially racial issues involving black troops, their enlightening experiences while abroad, and their hopes that serving their country in the name of democracy would help promote equality at home. Sadly, of course, those hopes were mostly dashed, and in often violent ways upon their return home. This was all handled excellently. Again, I can’t recommend these three episodes to you highly enough, so be sure to stream them online if you missed them. (I wouldn’t wait very long, however, because I am sure they will soon only make it available to paid subscribers). It is also available now on DVD. Trust me, this is one to own.

As for Underground. Wow. I did not see that one coming. The midseason episode took a major step back from the normally fast paced and heart thumping action scenes, and slowed things down in a rather unprecedented and daring way. As you know, one of the main characters this year is Harriet Tubman, although we have not seen her much since the season premiere. This episode was 100% just her, giving a speech to a gathered group of abolitionist in Philadelphia. No flashbacks, no interruptions (other than commercial breaks), just a 45+ minute speech by Tubman as portrayed by Aisha Hinds (Here’s an interview with her about the episode from the NY Times). It didn’t always work, but there were moments of brilliance that hit home hard, and it is the most screen time this amazing woman has ever gotten. Tubman did indeed give many speeches to groups like this as a means of fundraising for the cause, and as the show depicts, because she was a hunted woman, she could not give them in well-advertised events in high profile venues like other abolitionists. The writers had her focus on her life (especially as a young girl), her escape, and her thoughts on whether the movement should embrace the violent tactics of John Brown. But the boldest segment of all came after the last commercial, as the camera slowly (starting with a distant shot from the barn’s rafters) honed in on her face, until she finally looked directly at us, ending with words that unmistakably were intended as a statement about our current events. This moment felt a bit forced to me (they tried too hard to help audiences make the connection, if you saw it, you know what I mean), but there is no denying that it powerfully got the point across, and was a bold ending to a very boldly creative choice by the show’s producers. I’m guessing this thing will show up in classrooms all across the country.

Further, if you enjoyed this episode of Underground, keep in mind that this is the sort of thing you can encounter at many public history sites across the country, as first person interpreters do these kinds of presentations regularly. Some are pretty bad and frequently cheesy, many are very engaging, and some are downright brilliant. When it is done well, (as in last night’s show), it can be a very powerful and effective tool for delivering historical interpretation to popular audiences. So look for these kinds of presentations the next time you are at a history site, particularly if they are presented by reputable institutions, like the National Park Service.

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