Hollywood on the Potomac: John Legend’s ‘Underground’

by Janet Donovan

John Legend’s WGN series starring Aldis Hodge explores the Underground Railroad

Aldis Hodge stars in "Underground." Image courtesy WGN.

Aldis Hodge stars in “Underground.” Image courtesy WGN.

Music superstar John Legend has a lot on his plate these days: The White House just held a special screening for his new WGN “Underground” series; he’s carrying on heated Twitter exchanges with Donald Trump Jr. on racism; and he’s expecting his first child with his wife, model Chrissy Teigen. We focused on “Underground.”

According to producers, the film centers on a group of slaves planning a daring 600-mile escape from a Georgia plantation. Along the way, they are aided by a secret abolitionist couple running a station on the Underground Railroad during their attempt to evade the people charged with bringing them back, dead or alive.

Legend and his production company were in charge of the score and soundtrack for the series and Legend served as executive producer. “I believe the story of people brave enough to risk everything for freedom will be inspirational,” he says.

We spoke to cast members prior to the White House screening, a smart, introspective, engaged group who gave us their take on the relevance of the series in today’s world as well as the significance of this underreported sequence of events during the revolt against slavery.

We focused on Aldis Hodge … think “Straight Outta Compton”… who brilliantly portrays Noah as he leads his fellow slaves in a daring escape on the Underground Railroad.

“It’s such a pivotal moment for America’s culture as it stands today because the subject matter resonates so loudly,” Hodge said. “It’s very, very relevant with the issues we deal with — social injustice, our personal outlook on our own culture and cultural history. Something like this can bring a different sort of appreciation for who we are, not only as different individual people, but as Americans because at the end of the day, that’s just what it’s about. We’re all Americans. We’ve got to make it work.”

Hodge notes that there are still towns and schools in America that are segregated and that “this makes no sense.” “There are still people [who] believe in cultural dissection,” he says, adding that “something like this can show the foundation of where it kind of started, how ugly it was and how ugly it never needs to be again.”

Hodge maintains that his story tells the tale of the first integrated civil rights movement where people of both races came together.

Both Hodge and the other cast members, who are quite young, hope that what they’ve created influences the younger generations to take a look back at history. “I know, especially being a Black American, our history is white-washed from the history books,” he says. “You have to search for our real history. You have to go to the Library of Congress to get those books.”

“This curriculum is not taught in schools. … We’re not celebrated, so there’s a younger generation of Black Americans that don’t understand there’s something to be proud of with their history. There’s a younger generation of White Americans that don’t understand that they have something to be proud of with the white abolitionists who actually helped to turn this thing around and understood the importance of integration and acceptance.”

We asked him to weigh in on other political issues such as immigration, which has been playing out on the campaign trail.  “I feel like America was built on immigration. It was built on, even though the ethics were different, immigration.  I feel like that is the core of it, cultural integration. Even though people misused it back then, we can’t live without it. You have to either accept what it is and acknowledge it or move somewhere else, possibly. This country thrives on every different culture’s contribution to what it is. This series sort of shines a big, beaming light on the difference in acknowledging that and not acknowledging that.”

Our take?  Hodge for Congress!

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