Fusion Festival Premiere Takes Different Angle on Slavery

Jurnee Smollett-Bell, one of the stars of “Underground”, speaks about the difficulty in portraying an enslaved character.

On April 8, students and faculty gathered for a screening of WGN America’s “Underground,” presented by NYU’s Fusion Film Festival. Misha Green, co-creator and Tisch alum, along with stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Amirah Vann attended the screening. Afterwards, the three participated in a Q&A, and WSN also got to speak one-on-one with Vann, a Tisch acting alum, about her experience with the new series.

“Underground” is a series about slaves on a Georgia plantation in 1857, pre-Civil War as the revolution is beginning. It follows the lives of many characters, including Rosalee (Smollett-Bell), a house slave who is starting to become more aware of her condition, and Noah, who begins the series with a failed escape, and is planning a revolution among the community of slaves. Other prominent characters include the plantation owner’s brother, his wife and abolitionists from the north who come to visit their brother on the plantation. By the end, it is implied that they will soon be joining the effort of the Underground Railroad.

In the Q&A, Green stressed that this is not a show about slavery; it is a show about enslaved people. This message was clear throughout, as it follows the lives of real people who “live and laugh and sing,” as Smollet-Bell said, and who know they deserve better lives. Green said that we usually don’t see these enslaved characters as people with agency, but she wanted to tell these stories, which she adapted from real slave narratives from the Library of Congress.

“You can’t understand the current state of race without understanding slavery,” Smollet-Bell said.

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And an understanding of slavery is what this show can provide to viewers — encouraging people to “activate their activism” through entertainment, as Green explained.

The emotions the characters evoked in viewers, even as early as the pilot, were striking. The episode includes horrific scenes. Rosalee voluntarily takes a whipping to spare her child brother from receiving it. Viewers see a woman drowning her newborn baby after deciding she couldn’t allow him to grow up enslaved. One of the most thought-provoking scenes is one that juxtaposes images of the plantation owner’s teen daughter’s birthday party with images of the concurrent funeral for the baby, where the slaves gather and sing hymns together.

“The show is making people ask questions of themselves; it’s making people have conversations about race in America,” Vann said.

It seems that viewers at the screening responded to this desire to inspire conversation. The women reminded students in the audience, especially women, to always trust in their artistry. During her interview with WSN, Vann offered advice that students could take with them and think on. 

“Find a balance between listening and being confident in what you bring to the table,” said Vann.

“Underground” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on WGN America.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 11 print edition. Email Adrienne Messina at [email protected]

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