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WGN’s Underground’ Surfaces: A Slave Drama That Resonates Today

The new WGN America series "Underground" upends the traditional slavery narrative in just about every respect imaginable -- from the music, to the camera work, to the storyline.

"We wanted to in every way defy expectations," said Anthony Hemingway, who directed four episodes of the show, including Wednesday night's premiere.

For starters, the black men and women who labor on a Georgia plantation in 1857 aren't portrayed as passive victims of a cruel fate.

A group of them plot their escape via the Underground Railroad, including Rosalee, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell.

Underground 2015, Season 1, Episode 101
KIMBERLY WHITFIELD / KIMBERLY WHITFIELD, Courtesy of

"I read about our stories and I always ask myself, 'Well, what about the people that fought back?'" she said at a panel discussion on the show held during the Sundance Film Festival. "I have this desire to see us portrayed differently and to see us be revolutionaries... For me this was an opportunity to explore the boldness that I come from."

"For me, 'Underground' is a celebration," co-star Alano Miller told NBCBLK. "It is about people taking ownership. It is about our first civil rights movement."

Underground, Season 1, Episode 102
UNDG_102-20150429-SB_0092.cr2 Skip Bolen / Skip Bolen/Courtesy of Sony Pict

The series, co-created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, features a mosaic of characters -- abolitionists, bounty hunters, slaveholders and their chattel. Miller said they are etched not in black and white, but shades of gray.

"These characters are all flawed," he said "[The writers] are not letting a hero be a hero without having his bad choices or a villain go without his redeemable moment. I was just so drawn to them turning characters upside down."

The music too is unconventional for a historical drama, a mixture of period spirituals and contemporary hip hop, including Kanye West's "Black Skinhead."

John Legend, an executive producer on "Underground," took an active role in supervising and creating the show's soundtrack.

"Their vision for the music was really cool," he said of the series' creators. "They wanted it to feel bold and alive and present and not kind of feeling like it was on the museum wall. They wanted it to come alive and connect. And so from the first script I read I thought this is going to be really riveting television."

The panel discussion on WGN America's "Underground," hosted by the Blackhouse at Sundance. Front row (left to right) series co-creator Joe Pokaski, executive producer John Legend, actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell ("Rosalee"), actor Aldis Hodge ("Noah") Back row (left to right) series co-creator Misha Green, director/executive producer Anthony Hemingway, actress Jessica De Gouw ("Elizabeth") Matthew Carey

What also makes the show contemporary, of course, is its theme of struggle against oppression, a fight that continues today.

"There's clearly a lot of pain, and there's a lot of struggle going on right now," Legend said at Sundance. "I speak out about it all the time when I talk about the incarceration system but just knowing the courage these slaves had to, against all odds, try to break free, you have to watch this show and be inspired by their courage."

Underground, Season 1, Episode 105
Underground, Season 1, Episode 105 Photo Credit: /Sony Pictures Television Skip Bolen / Skip Bolen/Courtesy of Sony Pict

A series about slave in revolt "should have been made 20, 30 years ago," Miller told NBCBLK. "It's being made now and it's even more relevant. The things that are going on in society now -- there's still this revolution that is needed. And so I'm hoping the show continues to heal and that it gets conversations out there and that it inspires young people and older to brave those gaps and really get down to the root of what's going on in our society."

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