Stellar But Not Perfect: On Underground, Colorism and White Saviors

So per usual, I was tardy for the party. After recording the first episode of Underground last spring, and having every intention of watching it, I never did. Everybody and their Black ass mama kept telling me to watch, so yesterday I finally recorded and watched the marathon. Eleven whole ass episodes in one day, and let me say, it was well worth it.

The Great

ALDIS MOTHERFUCKING HODGE SHIRTLESS! 

Now listen, this show is all kinds of important for celebrating Black resistance, telling our stories and giving young Black actors the opportunity to shine, and believe me, none of that is lost on me. But, CHILE, y’all see this thick, chocolate, sweaty ass man sitting here with shoulders that could hold up the entire sky? He ain’t got no business being this fine. NONE! If y’all know him, @ him and tell him my house will always be a safe house for him. *waves in THOT*

BLACK RESISTANCE

I was so fucking tired of seeing movies where every enslaved Black person had accepted their fate. I know that my people got shit poppin’ all the time and resisted their commodification, exploitation and dehumanization in impactful ways every day. Thankfully,¬†Underground, doesn’t give these images of docility and compliance. The characters are constantly fighting, literally and figuratively, for their freedom. One of my favorite moments comes when Hodge’s character Noah tells Rosalee that freedom is theirs. But my most favorite moment had to be when Harriet Tubman says, “Freedom is not a negotiation.”

UNEDUCATED DON’T MEAN STUPID

Often, we are taught that because our people were denied the right to be educated in classrooms that they were stupid. Well, Harriet Tubman put that rumor to rest when she outsmarted all those educated white folks dozens of times. And Underground does a damned good job of reminding us that many of our people were brilliant though they never even learned the alphabet. The characters are strategic in their planning, think quickly on their feet, and prove that outmanned or outgunned does not equal outsmarted or outmatched. In short, they keep giving them white folks hell!

WHITE PEOPLE AIN’T NEVER BEEN SHIT

Overall,¬†Underground does a solid job of reminding us what most Black folks learn before they get their first pimple: Do not trust white folks. A smile ain’t indicative of kindness and a nice person isn’t necessarily a good person. Nearly anytime the runners are inclined to trust a white person, particularly a smiling one, they are betrayed. It drives home the point that Black people always approaching white people with caution and suspicion is a matter of survival.

WHITE WOMEN WERE ACCOMPLICES NOT VICTIMS OF WHITE MEN

Ironically, on International Women’s Day, when white women expected my Black ass to celebrate womanhood with them *stares in shady Black girl*, I was given all my life as¬†Underground reinforced why I’m a sista and not a sister.¬†The white mistress of the main plantation is conniving, spiteful, jealous, brutal and just as ain’t shit as her husband. She abuses, degrades and profits from Black people the same as her white male counterparts.

Mrs. Macon¬†envies Ernestine, the Black woman who runs the house, because Macon’s children look to Ernestine as a mother and hates her because her slaveholding, trash ass husband can’t keep his hands of ‘Stine. So basically, a white woman hates a Black woman because the white woman can’t properly raise and nurture her own fucking children and because her husband is a nasty ass rapist. And let’s not forget the white woman who’s a slave catcher, set to profit from recapturing runners. Nah, y’all weren’t victims. Having the same oppressor don’t make us sisters in struggle.

BLACK WOMEN HAVE ALWAYS SACRIFICED EVERYTHING FOR THEIR CHILDREN

This needs little explanation. Black women used whatever they had to protect them babies. Underground  does a beautiful job of reminding us that sistas will risk anything for their children. Stine and Pearly Mae each present very different but equally important portrayals of Black motherhood and how our children are always the center of our world. A moment in the first episode when one of the enslaved women drowns her newborn is reminiscent of Beloved,  and serves as a testament of how Black mothers saw death as a better alternative to a life of bondage.

Another crucial moment in the show comes when Stine tells Rosalee that she didn’t know the meaning of fear until she had children. She explains how that kind of fear will make you do anything. I know that resonated with other Black mothers like it did me.

And now…

 

The Problematic

COLORISM ABOUNDS

I suppose it’s impossible¬†to not endorse colorism in a show about slavery since the concept, at least as it relates to Blackness, originated with that institution. Still,¬†Underground falls into the same tired trap. The light women are seen as valuable and worth protecting above all. The dark skinned women are fit to be the asexual, strong protectors. We can juxtapose the way Noah was willing to give his own life to protect Rosalee with the way Moses allowed his wife to place her body between him and a bullet, essentially abandoning her and resigning her to death. Now while Pearly Mae’s insistence that Moses take Boo and do whatever it took to get her to freedom speaks to my earlier point that Black women are willing to sacrifice themselves for their children, but it is also a painful reminder that dark skinned Black women aren’t seen as worthy of unconditional protection. I can’t even fathom a woman as light as Smollet’s character being left behind to fend for herself.

Additionally, Stine’s character, despite killing Pearly Mae, is always painted as a victim. Her actions are always justified. And her beauty is always a subtle point,¬†reminding the viewer that a woman so pretty — read “light” — could never be a bad person.

THE DREADED WHITE SAVIOR

While, as I mentioned earlier,¬†Underground¬†doesn’t shy away from portrayals of white cunning, it still slips in the white savior bullshit with the abolitionists. We’re reminded several times of the sacrifice “good white folks” made to help secure freedom for the enslaved. It’s hammered in that they were victimized for doing what was right. We must not forget that there were a few white people who wanted to end slavery. Remember “not all.” It doesn’t overwhelm, but it definitely hangs in the air, urging viewers to always remember that good men exist in all races. And while I’m hip that the abolitionist movement was largely white, I’m also hip to the fact that those white people who objected to slavery on a moral ground did not always believe that Black people were equal either. I could’ve done without the spotlight on the good white folks.

THE SUPER-PREDATOR STEREOTYPE

Every show about slavery needs the big Black brute.¬†Underground delivers its in Zeke. He is huge, a man of few words, and stronger than any human should be. Noah makes mention of how they need Zeke on their team because of his strength and size. There’s a scene where Zeke rushes to his wife, who’s being sold, and breaks a wagon. Later, when they run, the slaveholder, while dictating the description for the reward poster, says Zeke is 6’5 and close to 300 pounds. He should be considered very dangerous.

That description immediately conjured images of another 6’5, 300-pound man that we were told was extremely dangerous: Mike Brown. And the scene where Zeke is attacked by three slave catchers, and literally runs through bullets, “hulking up” and obliterates all three of the men made me uncomfortable to say the least. It was almost like it had been written as an ode to Darren Wilson’s unbelievable account of Mike Brown’s demon-like response to his bullets.

This one was hard for me. I nearly turned off the show. Certainly there were enormous Black men who fought back, but Zeke’s adrenaline kept him unfazed through an ax and bullets. That ain’t a stereotype I’m tryna have implanted in the minds of already trigger-happy cops and white people.

The Verdict

Two thumbs up. Despite a few missteps,¬†Underground takes care with the stories of our folks. I’m here for it. Also, here’s another pic of shirtless Aldis Hodge:

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