BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — This thrilling excursion you’re about to take with Underground on March 9 is unlike any other TV or movie experience on the topic you have ever seen. Yes, yes … I understand … as I walked into the screening for “Underground” I didn’t realize that I was conditioned and reflexively steeled against experiencing the typical and formulaic brutal subjugation of blacks by whites, coupled with the perpetration of an assortment of human atrocities against them, and then finally climaxing by the appearance of “enlightened” benevolent whites who somehow rescue blacks from their insufferable blight and squalor. Been there, done that. Bought the t-shirt.
WGN’s “Underground” is no such fare of the kind. Not even close. It is so much more.
If course, the series has to commence with the appropriate backdrop to induce the right mood and emotion in its viewer. However, amid the harsh realities of slavery circa 1857, just before the dawn of the Civil War, which features lashings, torture, rape and molestation “Underground” is, from an urbanite’s perspective, ultimately empowering because it is one of hope and heroism, of blacks (for the first time in Hollywood) shown in this type of film where the oppressed seize destiny into their own hands. Yet, I won’t lie, the overall theme won’t always be easily digestible fare. Brutality and animal-like savagery never is.
“Underground” turns out to be the veritable mass prison-break, only this is accomplished with righteousness and righteous indignation to unshackle themselves from a morally bankrupt and incontrovertibly corrupt (albeit highly profitable) slave system that relegates humans to cattle and commodities.
“Underground” centers around Noah (Aldis Hodge of Straight Outta Compton fame), who is wrongly hauled in as a runaway by the politically ambitious slave master, Tom Macon (Reed Diamond). But Noah eventually gets his hands on a map to freedom that finally provides a way to surreptitiously navigate to the North along the Underground Railroad to freedom.
Knowing that he cannot execute this dangerous expedition on his own, he systematically recruits a network of fellow slaves, each equipped with a special skill to accomplish the mission, including Henry (Renwick Scott), the diesel truck of a man Zeke (Theodus Crane), a carpenter Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) and a minister Moses (Mykelti Williamson).
As with any of the slave revolts and breaks in history, most famously via the likes of Nat Turner (which will come to the screen this fall in Birth of a Nation), Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser, nothing about escaping the slave system is simplistic. Hodge’s character enters a quagmire because has developed feelings for the gorgeous slave Rosalee (played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell of Eve’s Buyou fame), and his slave escape may be thwarted by brainwashed pro-slave master Cato (Alano Miller) — think of the infuriating character Samuel L. Jackson brilliantly played in Django Unchained.
Furthermore, there will be a few casualties en route to freedom. That’s where the beloved Christopher Meloni (of “Law & Order: SVU” and “Oz” fame) comes into play. With his chiseled face and boiling dark eyes that seem to bore holes through concrete, he is shall we say, perfect cast as the Antebellum-era Tommy Lee Jones of blockbuster movie The Fugitive. Meloni is a pay-for-hire slave-catcher and he performs his mission to return the “property” to their “rightful” owners and it is done without passion or prejudice … and by any means necessary.
What eventually unveils is a covert and organized free black Northerners, white abolitionists and former slaves who helped thousands of subjugated African-Americans escape to Union states or Canada. “Underground,” which premieres on WGN, zeroes in on how their thrilling, life-altering plan, but the series will deliberately take its time before tipping its hand as to how the escape unfurls.