In the Sundance Undergound, with John Legend

by Elisabeth Sereda January 22, 2017
JOhn Legend and the cast and director of the TV series Undergound at Sundance 2017

Director Anthony Hemingway, producer John Legend, and actors Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge speak about the series Underground.

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As John  Cooper and Robert Redford confirmed on opening day, diversity remains a founding principle here at Sundance. The festival is committed to showcasing the widest possible variety of voices. This year that includes 44% of female directors and once again an important forum for African American filmmakers. After last year’s hit Birth of a Nation this edition has already seen Dee Rees’ Jim Crow-era drama Mudbound. As part of that effort, just today a two-year collaboration was announced between the Sundance Institute and the Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith foundation to support diverse independent screenwriting. As part of the growing presence of television fiction (another festival trend), the producers of WGN’s TV-series Underground, are also back to promote their second season, having launched the series here last year.

On Saturday the HFPA met with producers John Legend, Misha Green, Mike Jackson and director Anthony Hemingway. They were joined in the basement of a restaurant on Main Street by Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge who play Rosalee and Noah, two slaves who lead a daring 600 mile escape from their Georgia plantation (the show is shot in and around Savannah).

The season 1 finale left us with Rosalee, who had lost everything, meeting Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and spy. "The biggest difference to the first season is that we are now introducing real life characters", says Jurnee Smollett-Bell. "It’s a few months after and Rosalee has been training with Harriet Tubman, who is taking her on runs, showing me the whole complex network which is the Underground Railroad. Instead of running away from danger I am running towards danger in this season." As for the leader of the movement, Aldis Hodge gives us a quick overview of his character in season 2: "When we leave off in season 1, Noah is back in prison. So when we pick up, he’s had all this time to think about the journey he has just had, trying to take on this big task of leading all these other people to freedom and what this responsibility is as a leader and dealing with loss and consequences." And yes, there is more love and romance between the main characters, Noah and Rosalee.

When the producers started out, their project was not easy to get off the ground: "Everyone was saying ‘a show about slavery?’ and we said, no, this is not about the occupation, this is about the revolution" remembers creator Misha Green. "When we started doing the research we realized how much material there really is about this particular part of history." In order to pitch the show the producers came armed with what is commonly known as ‘the bible’ in film making: "We layed out a 100 page document that described the entire story spread out over five seasons, because the one thing that the networks all asked was, well, how can you sustain that story over the course of a whole series? So we said, look how much material there is.

The arc for the second season starts in 1857, when the Underground Railroad was used to keep slaves that escaped from being recaptured, and a whole spy network was created to make that possible.“ As more and more research was done, everyone involved was blown away by how current the topic is: "Every time Joe , my co-creator and I read another story we go, this is crazy, this is so relevant for today! We think it is the distant past and it isn’t.“ Says John Legend: "This period created the seed for any movement that came later and also for us today to know that if these people way back could overcome this, so we can we. The message is: even though this was oppressive, even though this was a horrible period in history, even though so many died and suffered, people fought back and won.“

Asked why he would take on the difficult task of producing while having this wonderful career in music, Legend explains: ˝I wanted to use the value of my brand the cultural force behind it to help get interesting projects made. And so I put my name behind projects that I really believe in, that spark conversation, enlighten, entertain and inspire people and this is one of the earliest that we got made. And, of course, it also helped to get the kind of attention to then generate an audience big enough."

The entire Underground group attended the Women’s March in Park City on Saturday morning, as did many other filmmakers. "The reason to go was not to protest the current administration but to shine a light on people that are still disadvantaged because of the color of their skin, or their immigration status or being a woman or LGBT. And as long as that’s the case, then people who believe in justice and fairness and love for mankind need to fight and speak up on behalf of those who need help and need a voice, and say ‘let’s make this country better, let’s love each other more’. And that was what we were marching for", Legend sums it up.

After a series of panels cast and producers threw what many of us considered to be one of the best parties this festival has ever seen at Riverhorse on Main Street. Legend, Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell were joined by Insecure’s Yvonne Orji, The Affair’s Joshua Jackson and the wonderful singer Andra Day, and everyone danced for hours. Orji even joined the amazing DJ behind the turntables.