Looking back on history, there’s an aspect of slavery to celebrate: the legendary underground railroad, which is done justice by short-lived but nonetheless noteworthy television series Underground (Sony DVD). Set on the fictitious Macon plantation in Georgia, this compelling drama is propelled by the cunning courage of seven souls making a desperate 600-mile run for freedom in Philadelphia.
Rich characterizations fascinate throughout season one, powerfully driving a story of more than circumstance, immersed in the complex humanity of people relegated to subsistence as livestock, beasts of burden. As well, a telling look at the Whites impacting their lives — blithely arrogant plantation owner, well-off, do-gooding abolitionist and, of striking interest, a hard-pressed homesteading slave catcher scratching a living as best he can. It’s all carried off by deft scripting, skilled directing and superb acting.
Dynamically gifted April Grace guests in a brief, heart-wrenching turn. Adina Porter (True Blood) recurs in a memorable performance. The stars are brilliant — Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump, Heat) and Amirah Vann emerges, effecting a premier appearance; Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) and Clarke Peters (The Wire) subtly convey an intriguing master-slave relationship.
Meloni as the catcher, pragmatically flint hard, holding on to what little land he has, Peters matter of fact, giving him, a guiding, fairly philosophical hand. Alano Miller, constantly conniving for his good first, fellow runaways second, keeps the saga unpredictably on edge.
Auspiciously cute child actor cum accomplished artist Journee Smollet-Bell (Eve’s Bayou, Cosby) brandishes arching range, transitioning from naive, pampered house gal to hard-bit, swamp-wading escapee. His character scrambles to survive by strength of grit, wit, and when it comes down to it, literally fighting for her life. It’s a plumb role of which she inarguably makes the most. Opposite her, Aldis Hodge, masterfully conveys the brooding, determined mastermind of the flight to freedom.
This is not a feel-good, happily ever after, but creditably executes stark realism: most of the escapees don’t make it. You hurt for them and harbor hope for those who are left, pulling for them to prevail.
Regrettably, season two falls short, considerably drained of immediacy by stilted and sluggish, meandering scripts rendered still more inert by pedestrian directing. As well, the producers play fast and loose with the facts, rewriting the death of outlaw Patty Cannon, who hunted slaves and kidnapped the free. She wasn’t murdered by a Black bedmate but died in prison awaiting trial for illegal trafficking.
The less said of it on the whole the better, though there is an upside. Like the first season, quite a few actors (along with a world of extras) saw employment and gained hard to come by exposure, this time among them Jasika Nicole passing for White in polite society with another secret life as an armed abolitionist; DeWanda Wise slyly getting out of the field and into the big house by way of the master’s amorous attentions and, tragically, Rana Roy, who accidentally throws her life away.
Crossing the Atlantic all the way from London to chase after a self-centered freeman-cum-plantation owner she unwittingly winds up shanghaied into slavery, likely headed for consignment to a brothel. A saving grace is the casting of film veteran Bokeem Woodbine and Aisha Hinds. Woodbine (Dead Presidents, Jason’s Lyric) is cast in something of a comeback, refreshingly against type. He plays a hired out stone sculptor and loving husband, nurturing dad blinded for secretly teaching fellow slaves how to read. Aisha Hinds (Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Shield) transcends bit roles in this movie, on that program to enjoy a true showcase.
Featured in the recurring role of Harriet Tubman, she is front and center for an entire episode which consists wholly of Hinds delivering a monologue recalling the heroic figure’s origin, reflecting on her life.
The projected third season held promise. Anticipated depictions of John Brown, Abe Lincoln, and The Civil War — all as backdrop to men and women breaking themselves and children out of bondage. The captivating creative excellence and sterling artistry of season one might’ve returned, pulling off a truly powerhouse event.
All told, season one of Underground, powerful, painful, and ultimately uplifting, is a strong tribute to a historic life in African America.
Find season one and two of Underground on Netflix or order your own copies at Amazon.
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