When he was a boy growing up in Texas in the 1980s, William Jackson Harper went to a show at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. “There was a part of the show where a guy, somewhere in the stands, yells, ‘The south will rise again!’ Things like that came up that I didn’t record as important moments. But as I got older, I thought, ‘Oh, that was a disaster.’
He continues: “There is a point in the lives of many black people where, especially if you are surrounded by a lot of white people, suddenly your race becomes important. For me, it was high school. It makes everything that’s happening now look like, ‘Oh well, nothing really changed. It just went underground and now it’s back on the surface. ‘
In the post-Trump era of a resurgence of white nationalism, racist police violence, and Black Lives Matter, there has been a reckoning over America’s history, especially in terms of race: what should be brought to light, and what? should it stay buried? Last week, a Louisiana Republican suggested that schools should teach “the good stuff” about slavery. And there has been an uproar over the removal of Confederate symbols, with accusations of “erasing history”, even when a Confederate flag and a mock gallows appeared in the assault on the Capitol in January, in a spirit of “the south will rise from new”.
All of which makes this an interesting time to launch an epic drama that reviews the darkest days of American slavery. The Underground Railroad is arguably the highest-profile exam on the subject since 12 Years A Slave. The 10-part series is guided by Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, and adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The story follows an enslaved woman named Cora, played by South African actor Thuso Mbedu, who escapes from his Georgia plantation and travels through the south in the mid-19th century.
Despite its dazzling filmmaking and prestigious production values, the series is undeterred in portraying the cruelty and violence of the time. In the first episode, a black man is brutally flogged and then burned alive. Worse things happen later. Cora finds pockets of happiness, which is where Harper’s character comes in, but in terms of America’s ongoing culture war, it seems certain she will provoke the “erase our history” brigade.
“I think it’s just being honest about what the story really is,” says Harper from his Brooklyn apartment, where he has spent most of the past year locked up with his girlfriend and their dog. “Who do we want to raise? And who do we want to expose? That’s what people are having a hard time with – the heroes we were all raised with, sometimes actually … they weren’t. “
Railroad sees Harper in a very different way. Best known for playing Chidi Anagonye, the inquisitive and terminally indecisive professor of philosophy on the hit comedy The Good Place, he has carved out a space as the kind of smart, metropolitan, mild-mannered black man that barely existed in culture. popular until recently. He played a similar character, with a fish-out-of-water effect, in the shocking horror Midsommar, and does so again in his recent romantic comedy We Broke Up. He was almost in danger of becoming typecast, though fan reaction when Harper took off his shirt in an episode of Good Place and suggested that he always had a potential romantic lead.
“I didn’t think I had the slightest chance of landing this role,” he laughs. Harper had no internal connections. Like everyone else, he sent an audition tape and waited. “I started literally right after I finished filming The Good Place in America. The day we finished, I got on a plane and went to the set of The Underground Railroad. “The transition was something of a jolt:” I think because I’ve done a lot of comedy, I have this inner clock that ticks. I had to put that aside. It was more about making sure this world breathes and feels real and visceral. “
The Underground Railroad is not strictly history. Its most fanciful flourish is imagining a real railway, with tracks and steam engines, helping enslaved people escape north when in reality it was a network of activists and safe houses. But much of the story is inspired by or close to true events. Harper’s character Royal is a sentient action hero – a liberated man who fights to free other enslaved people. Their home is an almost utopian community vineyard run by blacks in Indiana.
There was no direct historical precedent for the character, but Harper relied on figures like John Mercer Langston, whom he also portrayed in the 1865 podcast series. Langston is exactly the type of figure that American history often leaves out: an activist, one of the first black congressmen, American minister in Haiti, and founder of Howard University in Washington DC . “It blew my mind that I never knew anything about him,” says Harper. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, people did these things, even at a time when it seems impossible.’
The Underground Railroad was a psychological challenge, Harper says, given that the cast was effectively re-enacting the traumas experienced by their ancestors, just a few generations ago. This can be traumatic in itself. “Barry is fantastic at creating an environment where you feel safe,” says Harper. “We had a therapist on set. If things became too much, we would talk to that person. I never did, but Barry definitely did. He did it while taking care of the rest of us. “
This brings us to another touchy subject: Along with calls for a deeper understanding of American history, there have been debates about the description and possible fetishization of slavery as what has been labeled “black trauma.” The Underground Railroad tracks down not just 12 Years A Slave, but also a number of recent offerings like Antebellum, Harriet, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, as well as Amazon’s Them series. Many of them were criticized for almost reveling in scenes of cruelty, horror, and sexual violence against blacks, especially women.
Jenkins has written about his reluctance to add anything to this, but ultimately argued, “If not now, when? As a student in this country, educated in the public institutions created by the nation to educate and train its citizens, the images I speak of, if presented, are abbreviated, amended, cropped, and codified to protect the legacy that leads to the siren song of ‘Make America Great Again.’
Harper knows these dangers too, he says. Travisville, the first play he wrote, dealt with civil rights issues in the 1960s in Texas. When it was staged off-Broadway in 2018, she recalls: “A friend of mine showed up after the show and said, ‘Good job. However, I’m really tired of hearing about black trauma. ‘ After thinking about it for a while, I came to understand his point of view. “
He thinks The Underground Railroad is different. “What really moved me about the story, and kept it from being a ‘trauma’, is that, at its core, it’s more about endurance than perseverance. It’s about changing circumstances, not waiting for something to change, so that you can be your fully realized self. “
While revisiting the past, The Underground Railroad clearly has plenty of light to cast on America today. By doing it during such a troubled time, Harper has learned a lot about himself. Although he has participated in the Black Lives Matter protests and contributed to the debate, he says: “I am not the person who wants the megaphone. I don’t want to be in front of the crowd, be the leader. The way I can provoke is by making pieces like this. This is what I feel like I can delay 100%. I feel like I’m part of something, I say something that needs to be said. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism