Binge-worthy VoD: ‘Underground’ Captures the Complex Immorality of Slavery ✮✮✮✮✮

“Underground” is a fascinating study in the dangerous times of  slavery where the morality of both the slaves and the enslaved are studied with sympathy and, at times, curious objectivity. No character is purely evil nor good. Writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created characters whose are neither saints nor devils, allowing for nuanced performances from a dedicated ensemble. Season 1 is currently streaming on Hulu. A 10-episode second season has been ordered.

Misha Green previously was a staff writer for “Heroes” and “Sons of Anarchy.” Joe Pokaski  also wrote for “Heroes.” Award-winning John Legend (ten Grammys, one Golden Globe and one Oscar), is the executive producer. Music is an important part of this series, blending contemporary sounds with much older spirituals. Filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the series gives us several viewpoints, from inside and outside of the Macon 7. The Macon 7 are a group of slaves who make an escape attempt during Season 1. 

At the center of “Underground,” is a romance between light-skinned house slave, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and a crippled darker-skinned Noah (Aldis Hodge), the mastermind behind the escape plan.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell, 29, was the lead character in the 1997 “Eve’s Bayou.” Then she played a ten-year-old girl who isn’t as pretty as her sister, but both love their philandering father (Samuel L. Jackson). Bell was also in the 2007 “The Great Debaters.”

Aldis Hodge, 29, was “Age of the Geek” hacker Alec Hardison on the TNT series “Leverage” (2008-2012).  He recently played MC Ren in the 2015 biopic “Straight Outta Compton.” 

In contrast to the budding romance of Noah and Rosalee is another couple, one that hopes for a child: Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica De Gouw) and John Hawkes (Marc Blucas). The 28-year-old Australian actress De Gouw previously appeared on “Arrow” as Helena Bertinelli/The Huntress and on the TV series, “Dracula,” as Mina Murray.

Blucas, 44, was Rily Finn on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1999-2000, 2002) and Matthew Donnelly on “Necessary Roughness” (2011-2013).

In “Underground,” Rosalee is a shy house slave on the Macon plantation, owned by Tom Macon (né Hawkes). Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) took on the name of his wife’s family to inherit the property.  His wife Suzanna (Andrea Frankle) is heavily pregnant with another child. They already have a son and daughter.  

Rosalee and her younger brother James are Tom’s children by the head house slave Ernestine. Ernestine has an older child by another man, Sam, (Johnny Ray Gill), who works as a carpenter on the plantation. 

Suzanna has no white siblings, but she does have a half-sister, Pearly Mae (Adina Porter). Pearly Mae once was a house slave and played with Suzanna.  Pearly Mae learned to read and write. Her husband, Moses (Mykelti Williamson), is the preacher to the field slaves, reciting passages of the Bible. The slaves to believe he can read and write, but he only memorizes what his wife reads to him. Pearly Mae and her husband have a young daughter, Boo.

Outside of the plantation high society is the poor farmer, August Pullman (Christopher Meloni). His wife is institutionalized at the best facility in Washington, but the financial burden of her bills weighs heavily upon Pullman. Pullman’s son, Ben (Brady Permenter), is often left in the care of another man, Jay  (Clarke Peters) who comments,  “Boy’s of an age onto becoming a man. Now would be a good time for his father to be here, teach him a few things.” During the first episode, Pullman helps an escaped female slave evade bounty hunters. As the series progresses, Ben becomes more involved in Pullman’s efforts to raise money.

Tom Macon’s brother John Hawkes, is an abolitionist lawyer, whose wife is hesitant to join the Underground Railroad, but proves herself an astutely observant asset. John is first seen speaking in defense of Dred Scott, “Dred Scott, by law, is not allowed a legal defense. He’s not even allowed to defend himself. So someone should speak for him. This nation was founded by those fleeing religious oppression from across the Atlantic. Escaping those who would deny them their freedom. I ask you, is not the plight of every runaway slave but a noble extension of that same manifest destiny?  There are three legal questions in front of this court. The first is about jurisdiction.”

Historically, Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford was argued before the Supreme Court of the U.S. 11-14 February 1856. It was re-argued 15-18 December 1856. The decision came 6 March 1857. Scott was owned by Dr. John Emerson.  Emerson died, leaving his property to his wife, Irene Emerson, including the slaves. Supposedly, Irene Emerson sold Dred Scott to Sandford, Irene Emerson’s brother. The question of jurisdiction came because it wasn’t clear if Scott was citizen. If Scott were a citizen, then he would have standing in a federal court. The other issues were if the federal government had the right to regulate slavery in federal territories and if owners who take their slaves into free states can sue for freedom. Dred Scott lost this case, however, he and his wife were eventually freed, but died 18 months later in 1858.

Underground” begins in 1857. Because of his speech, John meets abolitionist black activist, William Still (Chris Chalk).  Still recruits John Hawkes to the UndergroundRailroad because Hawkes’ house is located along the Ohio River. The Ohio River flows through Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania were free states. Kentucky and Virginia (as well as Maryland) were slave states.The Ohio River became the extension of the Mason-Dixon Line that divided Pennsylvania from Maryland and was part of the border between free and slave territories, the line between the North and the South.

Still (1821-1902) was a real person who recorded the stories of slaves escaping in his 1872 book, “The Underground Railroad Records.”  Born in New Jersey, he was an active abolitionist in Philadelphia whose family includes slaves and free blacks. One of his elder brothers was whipped to death. In 1847, Still was a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and became the chair of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, a group that directly aided escaped slaves.

In the TV series, “Underground,” Ellzabeth and John Hawkes visit Still for an unpleasant surprise. A shipment of escaping slaves is delivered to Still’s flophouse office. People did get shipped, most famously Henry Brown. According to PBS on the Underground Railroad, the Henry “Box” Brown incident took place in 1849 when Samuel Alexander Smith shipped Brown in a 3-foot long box that was only 2-feet 8-inches deep and 2-feet wide. Starting on 23 March 1849, the box traveled for 27 hours.By publicizing his story, Brown became a minor celebrity, but he also made subsequent attempts to use the same method harder.  Smith tried to ship more slaves on 8 May 1849, but was arrested and sentenced to six and one-half years in the state penitentiary. James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free black man, was also arrested in September for attempting to ship slaves.

Although Brown was supposedly motivated by the sales of his wife, his unborn child and his three children several months before his successful escape, he married someone else and became part of English show business.

Will shipping be a possibility for the Macon 7? Seven boxes being shipped seems unlikely. On the Macon plantation, Sam is good friends with Noah and is one of the slaves Noah approaches with his escape plan.  Noah also includes Mr. Cato (Alano Miller), a slave who exists in the twilight zone between black and white, as a black man who whips other slaves, and has no friends amongst the slaves. 

The fictional Macon estate in “Underground” is situated in Georgia, between the 76-mile-long Yellow River and the Stone Mountain. The Yellow River flows through the eastern suburbs of Atlanta.  Atlanta is a landlocked city, in the middle of the state of Georgia, to the Northwest of Macon, Georgia. From Macon, Georgia to Philadelphia is about 803 miles, 12 hours and 46 minutes by car and 254 hours on foot.

From what is now the city of Stone Mountain, Georgia, to the Ohio River is about 6 hours and 32 minutes by car (without traffic).  Walking the 412 miles would take about 139 hours according to Google map.  From Macon, GA to the Ohio River is abut 7 hours and 27 minutes by car (521.8 miles); walking would take about 167 hours for 494.3 miles.  The slaves calculate the journey will be 600 miles.

According to Wikipedia, Macon, Georgia is named after Nathaniel Macon (1757-1837).  This Macon was born in Virginia, but raised in North Carolina. His Macon Manor was build by his father, Gideon Macon.  Nathaniel Macon was a House Representative and Senator, but he had three children: Betsy, Plummer and Seignora. It seems that Tom and Suzanna Macon are fictional characters.

Tom tells other white men that for 20 years while he’s run the estate, not a single slave has escaped, saying. “On foot, there is not a man on earth who could make that, especially not being hunted by those whose sole aim is to drag him back alive.”

When you think you might die any day, that’s not a enough deterrent, but it’s the reason Noah believes a successful escape must be a group working together. Noah learns a song that promises to guide him to freedom, if only he can decipher all its clues. (Songs were used this way). 

I’ve seen death, but the moss stays the same.

The sun is shinin’ through the blue haze.

The drinking gourd, the wolf yells its name.

The devil grins when he shows you the grave.

The River Jordan rises on high;

Pulls you closer to the angel’s light.

And if you fall get back up again

‘Cause freedom’s fruit heals all your sin

Waiting to see Heaven’s door.

Y’all wait here.

At the start of the series, the only clearly identifiable phrase if the River Jordan. As the series progresses, Noah deciphers the riddle and Rosalee finds inner strength. Seven slaves will escape but many things go wrong. Each of the characters will make a decision that requires them to betray someone or something; that is the deep moral morass of slavery where both the slaves and the slave owners and even those around them become entangled in a web of ethical dilemmas. For this reason, I prefer “Underground” to “Roots.”

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