What sort of grit and ingenuity did it take for slaves in the Old South to flee from a plantation that had been their world for their entire lives, then head 600 or 700 miles north without any clear idea of what “north” is or what was likely to await were they sufficiently lucky to reach their destination?
This odyssey is explored in Underground, a new drama series premiering on WGN America on Wednesday at 9 p.m.
The series stars Aldis Hodge as Noah, a blacksmith who gathers a small group of his fellow slaves and hatches a plan of escape along the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves with the help of abolitionists to find covert passage to free states.
Among his fellow travelers is Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a timid house slave who summons unimagined bravery within herself to join this grueling mission.
Mykelti Williamson, Reed Diamond and Christopher Meloni also star.
“It’s full of intrigue, stories of heroism and courage, danger and suspense, and I thought it would be great television,” said John Legend, an executive producer of Underground and a driving force behind the series.
In a recent interview, the Oscar-winning singer-songwriter said he was drawn to the project by prior knowledge of the period and the events it portrays: He studied English at the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration in African-American literature and culture.
“I’m excited by the idea of bringing this under-told story to life,” Legend said. “It’s such an exciting story about the first integrated civil rights movement in American history and the fight to abolish slavery.
“You want it to be dramatically powerful but also honest to the time period,” he added, crediting series creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski for their exacting research that included many slave narratives.
But this chapter of history needs little enhancement.
“There’s really so much intrigue in the truth,” he said.
The cast makes the most of characters who — whether sympathetic or despicable — are “complex and interesting,” Legend said. And even with figures whom the audience will see as villains, “if you don’t end up agreeing with the way they behave, you at least see their perspective.”
What does Legend want viewers to take away from the series?
“I want them to be inspired,” he said. “I want them to see the courage of slaves who defied the odds and did something that was truly dangerous and who risked their lives to be free.”
Meanwhile, each hour of Underground will likely leave many viewers asking themselves a hard question: Even given the hardships of plantation life, would I, like the heroes of Underground, have had the courage to take flight in hopes of a better life?
- 9 p.m. Wednesday
- WGN America