by Kelisha Graves
Recap: Episode 2.03 | 22 March 2017
This week Underground just might have succeeded in sending all of us into therapy. You have to absorb this one and let it sink into your bones…deep down to the vulnerable marrow part. If you are not careful, you just might fall all the way into your emotions. This episode (appropriately entitled “Ache”) gives us the kind of raw and merciless poetry that punctures the emotions like an infection. This review is my best attempt to help us recover.
In keeping with the previous two episodes, episode 3 unfurls with Bokeem Woodbine’s character Daniel once again smuggling literacy into his home and delivering it as gifts to his wife and children. Even if the world attempts to smother black intelligence, Daniel intends to uplift his home. It remains to be seen how Daniel will be integrated into the overall story line; nevertheless, what he has provided so far is a wider historical narrative. Beneath candle-light he reads aloud to his daughter Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” This clues us immediately to the fact that this episode will be an ode to black womanhood.
This ballad belongs to women and mothers, to Rosalee and Ernestine.
“This life be hard and unfair. You gonna know pain and there ain’t much I can do about that.” -Ernestine to Young Rosalee
Rosalee (Jurnee Smollet-Bell)
Enough cannot be said about Jurnee Smollet-Bell. She’s bold, she’s crafty, she’s gutsy, she’s big-hair-don’t-care, she’s sistah-soldier, she’s conqueror, she’s all the way up! In fact, there is something entirely raw and beautifully savage about the way the actress channels Rosalee this season. Motherhood has the capacity to change a woman from virgin cub to fully-endowed tigress and we see this come full-circle in Rosalee’s character. Smollet-Bell’s real-life burgeoning motherhood is obviously completely responsible for this maturation. The actress conveys fatigue and ferocity with so much honesty that you can almost feel every drop of the sweaty caramel courage that this black woman’s fugitivity demanded.
Bloody, wet, and heavily pregnant, Rosalee hustles against nature with only a few shots of adrenaline to keep her running. It is hard not to flinch when she digs a bullet out of a mushy gash in her shoulder and uses a gun to seal the wound (which blows out her eardrums). Hyped up on adrenaline and nearly deaf, she battles against man and nature…literally. Nevertheless, she persists...because even above the self, the womb is supreme. As a black woman I am reminded that melanin can’t fail! Rosalee is a one woman multitude surviving against the merciless punches of Mother Nature. The earthy, muddy framing of these scenes will remind the audience of the 2016 multi-Oscar award winning film The Revenant. Last season, Noah tenderly ushered Rosalee from girlhood into womanhood, and from womanhood into immediate maternity. Now, the Woman survives forward…for the womb’s sake.
Ernestine (Amirah Vann) and Young Rosalee (Mia Ella Clyburn)
What is brilliant about this episode is the way in which Rosalee’s and Ernestine’s stories mirror each other. Both women are battered and beaten by the world. Rosalee’s memories of her mother nourish her forward, they are nutrition for fatigue; however, Ernestine’s memories are engorged with only pain, injury, and dead loved ones. Ernestine has her own mental purgatory to deal with and perhaps we are wondering at this point, where is the bottom for her?
Underground is always at its best when there are only two people on screen and we get quite a bit of this kind of intimate storytelling via flashbacks and hallucinations. We only see Harriet Tubman once in a scene where she tutors Rosalee in how to “build up her muscles” for the body-snatching task at hand. Everything about the chemistry between Hinds and Smollet-Bell is equal parts motherly and sisterly.
The first flashback we get of Ernestine and French is particularly revealing because it seems to insinuate that Ernestine might have had another child before Sam. French: “You can tell me about it. I won’t let them take ” In the second flashback, Ernestine washes the mushy wounds carved by bullwhip into French’s back. Baby Sam asks: “Will you do this for me Mama?” Ernestine breaks, and at this point I fell head-first into all of my black girl emotions because this moment would prove prophetic for Sam. Ernestine kisses the gashes in her dead husband’s back and she leaves the broken pieces of her heart there. Now, her woman’s heart is buried in the same cemetery where French is. this one from you.
We see adult Sam (Johnnie Ray Gill) as well and what we immediately notice is that phantom Sam has a new haircut! Whether it’s Pearlie, French, or Sam, all of these apparitions represent iterations of Ernestine’s subconscious mind regurgitated in the form of people she has either loved (French and Sam) or wronged (Pearlie Mae). In her conversation with Sam a more robust portrait of this bondwoman's psychology emerges.
Sam: What you and Massa [Tom] had, that was more. Ernestine: No it wasn’t. Sam: Then what about Rosalee? Ernestine: Security. Sam: And little James? Ernestine: An accident, and I made sure I wouldn’t have any more of those. Sam: But, you was his way more than you were my mama... Ernestine: I said when. I said where, always! Sam: You control nothing! You protect nothing!
With the exception of Sam, Rosalee and James are described by their mother as little more than the caramel-colored receipts of sexual exploitation. We learn what we already knew about Ernestine: that every piece of her psychology pivots around the need to control and protect the terms of her womanly existence. Being born a woman guaranteed that she would be foreordained to a carnal hustle in this world and even if her body had to serve as the ransom upon which “control” and “protection” was predicated, then she was doomed to make that sacrifice. It’s a historical fact that the enslaved woman’s body was never hers alone. Neither her reproduction nor her libido belonged exclusively to her. Ernestine’s two youngest children are proof of this fact.
If we are real, Ernestine ain't never lacking for a man; and, unfortunately this has become her curse because she always ends up with men who sabotage her in some way.
After Ernestine snaps in the Big House and gives Matthew Roe and his lame friends a melodic cussing-out, her situation with Hicks reaches a bloody climax. Their affair is a lethal potpourri of drugs, sex, and banjo. This relationship (and their access to the Big House) is clearly predicated on the fact that they are both musicians; their talents are consumable commodities for white folks. (This entire situation is strangely Ike-ish and Tina Turner-like). We find it easy to immediately hate Hicks when he reduces Ernestine’s face to a bloody pulp after which he proceeds to try to sex his way back into her good favor. Perhaps, Hicks misinterprets her sobs as the kind of erotic encouragement that a man likes to conjure up out of his woman. He’s wrong. This is not romance and this is not love. It would be a mistake to confuse the body’s knee-jerk willingness to curve in harmony with pleasure as either consent or forgiveness. Even the abused woman’s body is not exempt from this reflex; the woman gives because the body can.
Hicks (Robert Christopher Riley)
We cannot forget that slavery is the first violence. The writers of Underground were wise to explore how the mega-violence of slavery was trafficked and recycled into the individual lives of enslaved people. Hicks is a victim as well. He’s been socialized to smother even the slightest sliver of aggression beneath a “safe” demeanor. In the presence of white men, his bodacious brick-like black manliness is banned from exposure. He can’t hit The Man, so he hits his woman. In this way, violence becomes his best articulation of manhood. Whether he’s punching Ernestine in the face or forcing an abortion onto Clara, fists and libido represents for him the ultimate merchandise of manhood. Even still, frustrated manhood is never a legitimate excuse for abuse. That being said, Hicks gotta go!
“I don’t want the Massa, but that’s what I get.” –Young Ernestine
Young Ernestine (Zada Luby) and the Conjure Woman (Angela Bassett)
In the midst of all of this we get a glimpse of Young Ernestine (played by a precisely cast young actress named Zada Luby who bears an uncanny resemblance to Vann). The young Ernestine seeks wisdom from a conjure woman (Angela Bassett) on the plantation who is known for “helping girls.” Angela Bassett’s cameo is poignant without being overwhelming. Bassett’s “conjure woman” provides a perfect origin narrative to the adult Ernestine. I’ve said before that the intensity Amirah Vann deposits into her craft always reminded me of Angela Bassett. In this way, Bassett was the only appropriate choice for this part.
The conjure woman’s knife-wielding hands digging into the stomach of a dead animal testify to the kind of “helping” to which she’s accustomed. She obviously helps young girls get rid of unwanted “growing yellow weeds” (which is code for the generation of mixed-raced babies incubating in the toddler-wombs of baby black girls). The girl-child is advised by the sage-woman: “Your body ain’t never been yours and never will be. Looks is all you got so I ‘spose you betta use ‘em. You cut out yo’ insides…that’s the only way. You too are the Massa’s seed; their blood is in you and it seep to the bone.” Ernestine is simultaneously tragic and triumphant; she’s called “a sad pretty-little thing.” She’s a butterscotch-colored black girl existing between two worlds...one black and one white. She’s kin to both. Ernestine’s pride and purgatory are directly connected to the fact that she knows this about herself. We are reminded here that Pearlie Mae read Ernestine for truth in episode 1 when she said: "But that's just the white in you. The black ain't never gonna stop hunting you."
Ernestine’s black girlhood is haunted by flesh-hungry masters, overseers, and anybody else aiming to snatch away her innocence. I am reminded here of historical black women like Elizabeth Keckley, Louisa Picquet, a slave girl named Celia, Sally Hemings, and the infamous incidents in the life of Harriet Jacobs. I am reminded of all our foremothers whose girlhoods were sullied by early lusty exposure to grown white men with lewd appetites for the African varieties brought to these shores; I am also reminded of the premature, unsolicited motherhood that always arrived as a consequence.
Healing is hard because wounds always get in the way. For the bondswoman, there is no room to exhale, there is only ache and inhale….repeat.
Ernestine attempts to drown her woes in a body of water wetter than any tears she could manufacture alone. Rosalee almost yields to Mother Nature’s many tribulations. But, even when both mother and daughter reach the edge of giving-up, salvation comes….from a community and a carriage.
“And Ain’t I A Woman?” This ballad is for our ancestral mothers. We are their daughters.
Jurnee Smollet-Bell and Amirah Vann deserve award nominations this season.
Meanwhile, we wait to exhale…
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