Underground is the history lesson America (and Ben Carson) needs

Now in its second season, the underground railroad drama is a slick yet complex look at one of the least examined stories of the antebellum south

By John Patterson / The Guardian / Wednesday 8 March 2017 08.00 EST


With Black History Month mere days behind him, housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson chose to chip in this week with a little history of his own, telling an audience that kidnapped Africans who arrived in America in chains were just “immigrants” of a different kind. According to Carson, they “came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land”.

Carson’s track record on the subject is suspect – he did once compare Obamacare to slavery, so perhaps he’s not the person to approach for answers about the moral quagmire of slavery and Jim Crow. He might benefit from a marathon viewing of season one of WGN’s Underground, in readiness for the start of season two on Wednesday.

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Created by Mischa Green and Joe Pokaski, who have written for Sons of Anarchy and Heroes, Underground is a slick, daunting and very entertaining look at one of the least examined stories of the antebellum south. The underground railroad (which was neither underground nor a railroad) was a network of individuals and safe houses that helped escaping slaves flee north along multiple routes to the free states or to Canada, or in some cases, south to French-owned Louisiana and Florida.

The railroad’s legendary heroes were black businessman William Still (Chris Chalk), whose Pennsylvania home was a major way-station and refuge, and former slave Harriet Tubman, who after her own escape returned south several times, at enormous risk to her newfound freedom, to help family members and many others find their way north. Over a 20-year period leading up to the civil war, they and many others helped an estimated 20,000 former slaves reach the free states.

Underground’s great virtue is its complexity. The two main black male characters, Noah (Aldis Hodge) and Cato (Alano Miller) can’t stand one another, even though they must cooperate to survive and escape. The slaves who work in the domestic sphere, including Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) are viewed with contempt by the field slaves who toil in the hot sun all day, while not all the white characters are evil racists – some of them are active, idealistic participants in the railroad, including socialite and abolitionist Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica De Gouw). Ernestine (Amirah Vann), the powerful and influential head house slave at the Macon plantation, is fiercely devoted to her own children, and is in a loving, long-term relationship with their father Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), who is also her owner and master.