“A lot of people were skeptical” when WGN America announced plans for its new TV series “Underground,” notes lead star Jurnee Smollett-Bell during our recent webcam chat (watch above). “Alot of people were like, ‘Why do we need another slave drama?’ But we knew that it was different.”
“Underground” doesn’t focus too much on the familiar stories of cruelty and bondage on plantations in the antebellum South, but rather on the slaves’ daring drive to escape 600 miles north to freedom. It’s full of well-told surprises as good guys turn out to be bad guys, vice versa, and plotlines run to unexpected places. These historic struggles are given a modern update as its musical score includes new R&B and rap tunes produced by John Legend.
TV critics and audiences shouted “Hallelujah!” when it debuted and now it’s a hit that’s been renewed for a second season. Smollett-Bell says, “It’s blown our minds” that observers quickly flipped from saying “Why do we need another slave drama?” to “Where has this been all along?”
Smollett-Bell portrays Rosalee, house slave who is gravely conflicted about making a dangerous dash to freedom. “Think of how deeply she must’ve been brainwashed – this young woman in 1857 who’s never stepped outside of the plantation,” she says. “She’s being told that ‘This is the best life is ever going to be. You should never dare to dream. Dreaming could get you killed, first of all. Second of all, you don’t have the right to dream, to think you’re better than this because there are plenty of people who have it worse than you.’
“Think of how hard it would be to overcome the psychological battle of that. Then think about the physical battle of running off of the plantation and overcoming the conditions.”
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