Underground

Not too long ago, UNDERGROUND, a groundbreaking action drama on the cable station, WGN America, completed its second season. If this is not the most important drama on American television today, well, I would argue that it is damned close. The importance lies not solely with the craft of the actors, as impressive as they are, or with the quality of the writing and directing, top notch in both areas. No, the importance lies with the visceral impact this show has on its viewers, particularly its African American viewers. Here is the telling of the antebellum American story we have long been waiting for. Here is the telling of black Americans place in that story without the need to "apologize" somehow for the violence and degradation that was imposed upon them; without the need to paint the slaveholder, the overseer or the white bystander as "good white folk" who treated their darkies nicely or kindly or simply just didn't beat them too much, so as to not rouse the emotions of the TV audience in the South. To be sure, the violence and ugliness of the "peculiar institution" is there ( in these days post-!2 Years A Slave, it is impossible not to address that ugliness anymore). But, what is also most evident is the enslaved African's resistance to his captivity, and that resistance is allowed to take shape in all of its various manifestations: sullenness, anger, tears, rage, violence, ESCAPE! Mammy is there, but she kills the Master who is also the father of her two children. "Mandy" is there, but she is a runaway who matures from a frightened teenager to a proud freedom fighter in the abolitionist Movement, following her leader, Harriet Tubman. Eliza who stole away in Harriet Beecher Stowe's, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has a character representing her in this series, but now she is an abolitionist who passes for white and uses property she has acquired to serve as a station on the Underground Railroad. The thousands of white women who were the backbone of the Abolitionist Movement in the 19th century are represented in the form of a woman named Elizabeth who becomes even more radicalized when her husband is assassinated right in front of her and his murderer goes free. The violent "Crown" from Porgy n Bess is here, but now he is the leader of a group of runaways who seize guns and righteous rage and fight to maintain their freedom even though some must pay the ultimate price. Yes, all of the familiar character tropes from nearly two hundred years of american literary and cinematic history, rewritten and refurbished, told now from a point of view sees the history from the point of view not of Margaret Mitchell but of the slave narratives and the autobiographies of the enslaved, from Fredrick Douglass to Sojourner Truth to Harriet Tubman. But, of course, the history is also "Hollywoodized." The events depicted, though based on truth, are now part melodrama, heightened to a kind of mythology not too dissimilar to the way we now experience the Old West or the American Revolution. Characters are sometimes too easily divided into recognizable heroes, heroines and villains. There are nuances to be sure (and a few surprises), but otherwise the characters each occupy tried and true spaces in the pantheon of those we cheer and those we hiss and boo. But, UNDERGROUND went even further, for this was a show that also found ways to link the racial discord, political tumult and moral idealism to the issues of today. Echoes of Black Lives Matter, the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism, the divisions in Congress, political corruption, runaway capitalism - tensions roiling our society today - prevail throughout each episode. And there is a depiction of Harriet Tubman that is awe-inspiring. We not only see the woman as she must have been, but in a way that nearly lifts us out of our seats. We feel the level of bravery, concentration and spirituality that must have been required for Tubman to be the leader she became. Little wonder then that the show was not only a critical success, but also a ratings winner for WGN America...all of which makes the news of its cancellation all the more painful to bear. The show is lost because WGN has been acquired by Sinclair Broadcasting, which intends to do away with all of WGN's scripted broadcasting in favor of far less cheaper reruns and reality TV shows. Oprah Winfrey considered bringing UNDERGROUND over to her OWN network, but opted not to, citing the five million dollar per episode price tag as the biggest obstacle for her. The production costs are twice that of "Greenleaf" or "Queen Sugar" two shows currently on her network. I choose take Ms. Winfrey at her word as I have no idea what her daily expenses must be for running a television network. But, in an era when African Americans are complain about who will control our images and who will control the dissemination of our history, it seems nearly unconscionable that a show like UNDERGROUND is going to be allowed to fade away, without so much as an effort being made to save it by some of the richest African Americans in the history of the country. Someone does have to explain that.

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