by Kelisha Graves
8 March 2017
Featured on BlackFilm.com | Recap: Episode 2.01
It is nothing short of a mammoth task to organize this earthquake of a premiere into coherent language. This is my best effort.
Underground’s sophomore season unfurls to the bodacious bump of “Freedom.” The heart-thumping bass is a perfect accomplice to the black girl magical badness we are about to inhale!
As the camera endeavors in vain to keep up with the swift beat of feet shuffling, falling, and tripping toward freedom, viewers are reassigned from contemporary America to antebellum America (1857 to be exact), back to a time when freedom for black folks was a federal injunction.
"My arms are mighty tired and I aim to end this quick!"
Tubman cocks her shotgun and levies her axe. She offers an ultimatum to the slave catchers who intend to hijack her cargo. While Tubman traffics black flesh from bondage to freedom, she negotiates in denominations of green. “How’s ‘bout we make a sale right here [….] Ten dollars or two bullets. It’s your choice.”
It goes without saying that Harriet Tubman endures unmolested as a gargantuan totem in African American History and Aisha Hinds’s debut as that gun-totin’, bandanna rockin’, skirt wearin’, black body-snatcher is nothing short of impeccable. Hinds channels all of the grit, gravitas and ungrammatical profundity of a mid-life Tubman with brilliant forte. She gives flesh, blood, sweat, and tears to Tubman in a way that we have never seen before. We willingly gobble up every ounce of chocolate courage this mocha matriarch offers. We notice immediately that her forehead is indented by an old gash which (as we learn later in episode one) accounts for both narcoleptic spells and prophetic visions.
Tubman tutors her disciple in how to successfully carry-out what was, during the antebellum period, the chief of federal transgressions, a capital crime: body-snatching. Rosalee reminds them: “You ain’t got nothing yet!” There is something entirely different about the way Smollet-Bell embodies this Rosalee and when the former intensely sheltered house enslaved girl cocks her rifle in tandem with Tubman, we understand why she’s been baptized the Black Rose.
As usual, Underground disabuses us of any wisdom we proclaim to have about the period of enslavement. Whereas history books have traditionally framed blackness and African American history around the condition of enslavement in the New World; Underground tutors us to the contrary. In this version of history, blackness is defined in the affirmative; blackness is defined by the instinct to resist the yoke and absurdity of ungodly bondage.
“Freedom Ain’t About a Place”
Having been snatched up by Patty Cannon’s gang in the season one finale, we find Noah reduced back into bondage. John attempts to deploy the Fugitive slave law to his advantage by arguing in court that as the property of Suzanna Macon (and formerly Tom Macon who Ernestine mercilessly sent on) Noah must be returned to the south. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 allowed for the capture and return of runaway slaves within the territory of the United States. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this law (referring to the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850) was that it established blackness as the predicate for fugitivity; or better said, being black in America meant that one would exist perpetually and exclusively as a fugitive. Moreover, while the law both deputized ordinary white citizens and enabled local governments to seize and return enslaved people, it also incentivized rogue kidnapping and endangered the status of free blacks in the North. The ferocity of the Fugitive slave act is best conjured up in the example of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and enslaved for 12 years. ( Read Northup’s narrative here.)
Even as Noah languishes in a jail cell with little more than dirt and steel for distraction, he’s still a strategic genius; his mind churns incessantly toward two objectives: reuniting with Rosalee and escaping his chains. When the enslaved men with whom he shares a jail-cage are expected to eat mush out of a pig trough, Noah’s ambitions and wit suffice as his bread and butter. For Noah, freedom remains compulsory, not voluntary. It is neither a geographical location nor an abstract desire, freedom is instinctual, it is the capacity for creative self-determination.
When federal law is overturned, Noah is sentenced to hang. His scheduled hanging is mocked up as some kind of absurd holiday attended by white citizens dressed to the umpteenth perfection. Of course, then, the Black Rose goes to bat for her man and literally busts up the entire shindig with plenty of boom and pow!
For Ernestine, it’s been a long, hard fall from her "pedestal of privilege" in the Macon Big House. It was a bogus pedestal to be frank; a pedestal procured, no doubt, through a lusty arrangement which proved to guarantee her little more than fictional security and a dead son.
Her descent has been bloody, ugly, and painful. The camera dangles over a pile of fresh lashes on her back. This is intentional. Her signature coiffure has given wave to a reckless afro. As she rises at dusk from slumber to labor, she navigates a blurry, pitiful territory. Her scarred flesh and bruised face clue us immediately to the fact that the once exquisitely pressed head-house enslaved woman has been reduced to a fuzzy assortment of hallucinations and bloody stripes. As always, Underground never avoids the brutal truth; to the contrary, it brings you painfully close to the material and forces you to cope. Ernestine inhales a cinnamon-colored liquid substance. She is addicted to Laudanum, a tincture of opium and a highly addictive painkiller that was popular in the 19 th century. Under the influence of this substance, she’s numbed and haunted.
Ernestine has been banished to the Roe plantation, a rice plantation on the South Carolina coast. It bears noting here that rice plantations were dominant in low-country areas of South Carolina and Georgia. In early America, the British began rice cultivation in the Carolinas; in fact, South Carolina was the nation's greatest producer of rice during the Colonial Period.
On the Roe Place, Ernestine’s existence pivots primarily and exclusively around abuse, toil, and drugs…snort...repeat. Thereto, even while she lives among the colorful Gullah-Geechee nation, she exists in a hazy isolation induced by her addiction (no doubt) to her banjo playing abuser-paramour Hicks (Rob Christopher Riley) and the boxes of laudanum he traffics for the overseer. When Ernestine and Hicks
escape to the woods to get their jungle boogie on…(and on!)….we might assume
that this is medicine for melancholy. However, any hope
we might have had for this couple completely crumbles into horror when
Hicks slaps Ernestine (literally) across the room. We immediately know that
this relationship is a toxic part of a larger cycle of abuse. In this septic
environment, there is no room to exhale. The overseer hits Hicks, Hicks hits
Ernestine…she inhales, and they repeat. It’s a poisonous, fatal medley.
The facts cannot be overstated: Amirah Vann is a force to be reckoned with as Ernestine. She barely utters more than a handful words in the first episode. In fact, outside of the few verses of song she sings in the rice dikes, and the concession she give Hicks -- ”You don’t gotta eat it” -- she’s virtually mute. In the absence of language Vann’s face contorts brilliantly and habitually to secrete all of the language we need. Her signature squinty side-eye (the FIERCEST side-eye in the game) conjures up a simultaneity of anger, fear, and ferocity with astonishingly tangible precision. The ability to convey such an accurate potpourri of emotion delivers the kind of vocabulary we can only feel, not hear. It is enough for us to understand this bondswoman’s dire condition.
Underground is grown-up television and never for the faint of heart. It sticks to our bones precisely because it is bone of our bone. The narratives that unfurl against our screens are culled from the REAL spilled sweat and blood of our ancestors. It is our (not too distant) memory...in America.
Read the reviews from last season here | Next Review: Episode 2.02