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Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - THE FACTS ISSUE - { WGN } re­view by Veron­ica Hilbring illustration by Loveis Wise

Un­der­ground, Their Finest, I Love Dick, Girl Boss, and more.

Ros­alee (Jurnee Smol­lett-bell) is backed into a cor­ner. Af­ter res­cu­ing her brother James and burn­ing down the Ma­con plan­ta­tion, she’s sur­rounded by slave catchers and her over­seer Cato, who also es­caped but proved to be a traitor. Ros­alee sur­vived a gun bat­tle, but is now out­num­bered. WGN’S break­through se­ries Un­der­ground has cap­tured crit­ics and gar­nered a de­voted fan base through pow­er­ful story lines and block­buster ac­tion. Cre­ated by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the se­ries pre­miered in March 2016 and in­stantly gained cult sta­tus among view­ers who were ea­ger for more sto­ries about Black his­tory.

Slave nar­ra­tives have drawn large au­di­ences since the epic mul­ti­night se­ries Roots aired in Jan­uary 1977. De­spite the pop­u­lar­ity of his­tor­i­cal sto­ries about Black peo­ple, there re­mains a seg­ment of view­ers re­sis­tant to slav­ery-re­lated ma­te­rial—the con­sen­sus is that there are not enough sto­ries about suc­cess­ful Black peo­ple to bal­ance out the slave sto­ries. But Un­der­ground opened many peo­ple’s eyes to the com­plex­i­ties of life un­der slav­ery. In the se­ries, we’ve found the love, hope, and de­ter­mi­na­tion that most of us weren’t ex­posed to in his­tory class—if we were lucky enough to get de­tails about our own his­tory at all.

In just two sea­sons, I’ve fallen in love with the show’s char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing Ami­rah

Vann as ma­tri­arch Ernes­tine, Jurnee Smol­let­tbell as emerg­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary Ros­alee, and Aisha Hinds as Har­riet Tub­man. As the sole en­slaved fe­male char­ac­ter that is given sexual agency, Vann’s por­trayal of Ernes­tine is es­pe­cially rev­o­lu­tion­ary. En­slaved women were un­able to con­sent to sex with their own­ers, but Ernes­tine has cul­ti­vated a sexual re­la­tion­ship with her mas­ter, Tom Ma­con (Reed Di­a­mond), and they’ve had two chil­dren to­gether. “Stine,” as she’s of­ten called, uses her re­la­tion­ship with the mas­ter to in­flu­ence his de­ci­sions and make life a lit­tle eas­ier for her chil­dren.

Stine’s story line also ex­plores how slav­ery harmed Black men, who in turn harmed Black women. For in­stance, Stine’s boyfriend

copes with abuse from the over­seer by abus­ing her. In turn, she be­gins us­ing opi­ates to cope with her pain, a cy­cle that mir­rors how many Black men and women still in­ter­act to­day. Stine is try­ing to sur­vive while men­tally drown­ing un­der the weight of con­tin­u­ous abuse.

How­ever, Un­der­ground’s de­pic­tion of Har­riet Tub­man presents a dif­fer­ent im­age of for­merly en­slaved women. Hinds’s por­trayal goes beyond what’s pro­vided in his­tory books about the abo­li­tion­ist. In­stead, the ac­tor brings dif­fer­ent as­pects of Tub­man to life, in­clud­ing her sto­icism, brav­ery, no-non­sense as­sertive­ness, and in­fa­mous trig­ger fin­ger. One episode re­veals the har­row­ing tale of Tub­man’s life, in­clud­ing her first hus­band’s be­trayal and the ac­ci­dent that caused her black­outs. Ros­alee is Tub­man’s mentee, and she has sim­i­larly gone through hell.

When we first meet Ros­alee, she’s a shel­tered house slave who’s been pro­tected from harm by Ernes­tine. But af­ter Bill, the plan­ta­tion’s over­seer, at­tempts to rape Ros­alee, she es­capes the Ma­con plan­ta­tion with Noah (Aldis Hodge) and sev­eral other en­slaved peo­ple. Her fel­low run­aways ques­tion her strength and de­ter­mi­na­tion, but she bat­tles leeches, en­gages in gun­fights, and brawls with slave catchers—while preg­nant—and even­tu­ally becomes a free­dom fighter in the Un­der­ground Rail­road. Her jour­ney from house slave to ac­tivist is a tri­umph that un­de­ni­ably of­fers an evo­lu­tion of the slave nar­ra­tive on TV.

En­slaved peo­ple weren’t one-di­men­sional. They cried, had sex, pro­gressed in their un­der­stand­ing of slav­ery, and re­volted against their masters. Un­der­ground truly cap­tures that com­plex­ity. The show also doesn’t con­ceal the raw, un­flinch­ing, and per­sis­tent atroc­i­ties of slav­ery. The show siz­zled with ac­tion, sus­pense, phe­nom­e­nal per­for­mances, and cre­ative di­rect­ing.

De­spite be­ing WGN’S most highly rated show, Un­der­ground has been can­celed. Ded­i­cated view­ers have launched a Change.org pe­ti­tion to urge other net­works to pick up the show. Un­til its third sea­son has of­fi­cially been given the green light, catch up on the first two sea­sons on Hulu.

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