Back from Wakanda, Can We Travel Back To Underground?


The cast of Black Panther & Underground 
By Brenda Alexander

There’s been a longstanding notion in Hollywood that movies that feature a predominantly Black cast and tells stories from a Black perspective won’t sell. Black Panther has dis-proven that theory with $700+ million in nationwide sales in its first two weeks of release. Being a superhero film that’s consumed by mass audiences of all races, this is a huge victory. With all of the success that BP has achieved, I’m optimistic about what’s ahead. It does sting that it took this long to “prove” that we indeed are marketable. I’m also saddened that great stories have yet to be told; or have been pulled and not given enough time to make its mark as movies and shows with predominantly white cast are. 

One story that sticks out most is the television show Underground, WGN’s period drama about a group of plantation slaves in 1850s Georgia who courageously band together to attempt a daring escape from the land. 

Aisha Hinds & Jurnee Smollett-Bell
Despite critical acclaim, the show was axed when WGN was sold to Sinclair Broadcasting Group in 2017. Fans were heartbroken and producers of the show have attempted to find a new home to no avail. But now with the buzz surrounding BP and both themes being similar in power and unity, I wonder if there’s room for an Underground resurgence...

Despite initial questioning surrounding yet “another slave tale,” Underground debuted with a vengeance. I was hesitant when first seeing the trailer, but was impressed after getting a sneak peak of the show at an advanced screening in early 2016. It was clear from episode one that the show was a story of rebellion and survival versus traditional depictions of our enslaved ancestors. What I was attracted to most was the stark comparison of how the Black struggle against oppression resonated centuries later and critics agreed. Paul Vigna of the Wall Street Journal praised the show for its storytelling but also how the show relates to current injustices Blacks face: 
“Underground is first and foremost entertainment, and it's good entertainment but it also hits on issues that are still coursing through the body politic. The show is set in 1857, but with protests against police brutality against Blacks currently taking place, its sensibilities are rooted in 2016.”
The show had consistent ratings with an average of 1.4 million but didn't survive the acquisition of Sinclair, a company known for buying stations and cutting original scripted programming for more fair-right news and non-scripted programs, which are cheaper to produce. John Legend, one of the show’s Executive Producer’s, let his disappointment be known publicly in an op-ed. He wrote,
“Underground was a hit, setting ratings records, receiving rave reviews and sparking conversation. It was screened at the White House and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, acknowledged by the NAACP, NABJ… yet here we are, still fighting...We know there is still an appetite for high-quality scripted dramas... We also know that, in this particular moment in history, there is an urgent need to tell the powerful story of the Underground Railroad. Let’s #SaveUnderground so that we can continue to inspire and educate the American people about these true American heroes.”
Underground struggles to find a new home. Even Black owned/focused networks like OWN passed on the show. Being a time period piece the shows costs an estimated $5 million per episode. Networks say it’s “too expensive” and even bring ratings into question. Though it was a success, a niche network like WGN may not transfer to a larger audience. One viewer agreed stating, “I never watched Underground because my cable package did not have the WGN channel,” she said. “But I heard from media industry powerhouses and friends that is was a phenomenal series. I think that hurt the show when pitched to other networks because they couldn’t see the ROI.”

Another question is: Are viewers still interested in the Underground story? There are currently no slave narratives on television. Though an empty market, some don’t feel it appeals to massive audiences like BP. “I don't believe the series will re-surge anytime soon. The entertainment industry follows trends that currently make money,” one explains. “With Black Panther thriving, I think we will see more superhero/sci-fi films or television shows, especially because they appeal to children, which is a huge financial gain for the industry.”
Aldis Hodge
I understand both sides of the argument. On one hand, the show was successful, but only to a small chunk of viewers who subscribed to WGN. Although the series inked a streaming deal with Hulu, there buzz wasn’t as large compared to others. However, viewers were dedicated. I’d like to see it explored further, even if that means it’s on a streaming service, which provides a wider audience. There’s amazing programming available now that we can choose from; but, there’s nothing like Underground. Post BP, there’s room. People are crossing their arms across their chests screaming Wakanda, the same can be done for the show that exposes how we fought our way to freedom. Let’s put our fists in the air for Underground!

Would you like to see Underground return?
Brenda is a Philadelphia native with a love for Marketing, Creative writing, wine and Jesus. Her work has been featured on Mayvenn’s Real Beautiful blog and she is the co-author of the book Christmas 364: Be Merry and Bright Beyond Christmas Night (available for purchase on amazon). Follow her on IG @trulybrenda_ and trulybrenda.wordpress.com

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