Only four months in, I’ve encountered a serious contender for the best episode of television I’ll watch in 2016. This week, my world was rocked by a cinematic, heartbreaking script brought to life by two beautiful, extraordinary actors — each of them less than half my age.
I don’t much care for kids on TV; young characters seem particularly prone to that dreaded combination of wooden acting and lackluster writing. But “Underground” Co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have made a habit of exceeding expectations, crafting narratives about enslaved Black people in antebellum Georgia. They do so without indulging the White gaze’s fetishization of the mortification of Black flesh and foregrounding the psychosocial dimensions and self-serving logics of White supremacy. Green often says, “it’s not about the occupation; it’s about the revolution,” and indeed, “Underground” is a showcase of Black resilience, Black ingenuity, Black dignity and Black resistance. As a non-Black person of color, I find that engaging with these narrative themes is essential to my unlearning. And this week, Green and Pokaski reminded me not to overlook the singular horrors of Black childhood in this world.
The premiere of “Underground” featured the funeral of a newborn drowned by his mother to spare him a lifetime of suffering. This week further explores the painful limits this world places upon Black parenthood. Ernestine’s (Amirah Vann) sexual relationship with her White master (Reed Diamond) can’t keep her little boy James (Maceo Smedley) in the Big House; James and his uncalloused hands are forced into the cotton fields. He gradually resolves to give up his “softness,” drink the dirty water to which he is unaccustomed, keep the shout song in his head and make weight. When he eventually rejects his White half-brother and those conciliatory Necco wafers, James reclaims a new kind of dignity, but the triumph is bittersweet; playtime is over, and Ernestine ultimately cannot protect him from this cruel life.
Meanwhile, angelic little Boo (Darielle Stewart) finds shelter with a White abolitionist (Jessica De Gouw). Instead of a similar gradual loss of innocence, we discover the damage is already done; a series of fairytale-like flashbacks reveal her last tender moments with her father Moses (Mykelti Williamson) and then his murder by slave-catchers as he carried her to freedom. As she continues north, Boo’s mask is now firmly in place, and we’re left mourning the sweet girl who brought so much light and hope to those who loved her.
With the maturity and nuance of actors several times their age, Maceo Smedley and Darielle Stewart do justice to a remarkable, thoughtful script. I cannot imagine what it was like for these beautiful children to relive, in their own ways, these profound traumas, especially because they resist neat confinement to the distant past. Smedley’s own grandmother picked cotton, and far brighter minds have written extensively about the ongoing adultification of Black children, especially within the criminal (in)justice system. But in me, they’ve got a fan for life.
Hidden Gems: Renwick Scott as Henry and that eerie children’s chorus (kudos, John Legend et al.)
Exhortation: Fellow NBPOC — please watch this show and support these incredible Black industry professionals.
Thank you for your labor: Feminista Jones, Bethonie Butler, Shannon M. Houston, Stacia L. Brown, Joshua Alston, Stacy Parker Le Melle, Niki McGloster and all of Black Twitter. Your coverage of this show is invaluable.