Whether America’s here for it or not, the slave narrative in film and television isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Although it may make some uncomfortable, there’s a want for it especially given the success of films like 2013’s Oscar winning12 Years a Slave.
While it is far from the first drama about slavery to hit television, WGN America’s new series, Underground, takes a harsh and honest look at the experience of slaves who escaped servitude via the secret routes of the Underground Railroad.
Executive producer John Legend joined forces with creators Joe Pokaski and Misha Green, to tell the story of slaves who made the heroic escape from a Macon, Georgia planation in the 1850s. Jurnee Smollett-Bell (The Great Debaters, Friday Night Lights) co-stars in the new drama where she plays a house servant named Rosalee.
We caught up with Smollett-Bell before last night’s premiere of the series and she revealed to us the most difficult moment she had on set when shooting the TV show.
“Getting flogged was probably one of the hardest scenes I’ve ever had to do in my career,” Smollett-Bell recalled. “As an actor you step outside of yourself so much, but the mental preparation was only imaginable. We had talked about it so much and kind of over talked it and on the day of doing it, all I asked Anthony (Hemingway), our director, was please don’t let me hear the crack of the whip until we have to actually film it. I really didn’t know how we were going to do it. I knew what the page said. I knew what the choreography was, but I didn’t know how we were going to do it. We did it. He kept the camera rolling and afterwards I couldn’t shake it. I just kind of stood there for a few minutes. I was just shaking and crying.”
Nothing in her 20-plus years in acting could prepare Smollett-Bell for the jarring reality of what women like her character experienced throughout the agonizing freedom movement.
“I just thought of all the Rosalees who’ve had to do that,” said the veteran actress. “Who had to put their dignity aside and say ’give me the punishment.’ While that’s such a courageous point for Rosalee, you go against your nature by doing that and that was one of the things I struggled with.”
Of course, while we’re definitely going to tune in on Wednesday nights at 10 pm to see our girl Jurnee help tell a very important story about America’s history, we couldn’t let her go without finding out if we’ll ever see her on Empire alongside her brother, Jussie Smollett.
Although she wouldn’t confirm or deny a possible appearance on the hit FOX show, Underground co-creator Joe Pokaski, did confirm that we will see Empire on Underground. Jussie appears in two upcoming episodes of the new series and according to Jurnee, he kills it.
Enough said. We’re here for that too.