Why Underground Is about the ‘Original American Superheroes’

Creator Joe Pokaski and stars Aldis Hodge and Christopher Meloni explain.

Photo courtesy of WGN

Photo by of Sony Pictures Television

Underground, a new television series based on the Underground Railroad, will feature a different kind of “superhero” when it debuts on WGN America.

Starring Straight Outta Compton actor Aldis Hodge and Law & Order: SVU alum Christopher Meloni, the drama highlights the brave slaves and abolitionists who came together to combat slavery in a pre-Civil War America.

“I think it resonates now. It’s a complicated thing,” Meloni said. “To me, it really highlighted what is great about our country, what is wrong about our country, and I still think we’re fighting these same battles.”

Co-creator Joe Pokaski, a Tufts and Boston University graduate who grew up in Randolph, was surprised that no one had really tackled the topic of the Underground Railroad before on screen. Along with his partner Misha Green, the pair was excited to create a show that showcased the country’s “first integrated civil rights movement.”

Pokaski, who’s written comic books for Marvel and was a co-executive producer on Netflix’s Daredevil, has plenty of experience working with heroes of the spandex-wearing variety. However, he feels that real-life heroes both past and present need to be getting more of the spotlight–not just Batman and Captain America.

“We have this thing in our history in which people started off ordinary, felt inside that they could be special, and then overcame these immense odds,” Pokaski said. “We think of our runners as the original American superheroes.”

Aldis Hodge Photo by Sony Pictures Television

Aldis Hodge Photo by Sony Pictures Television

Underground, which also features Grammy and Oscar winner John Legend as an executive producer, isn’t just meant to showcase the heroism of others. It’s meant to inspire viewers to take up their own fights against injustices.

As issues ranging from the gender pay gap to systematic racism continue to plague this country, Hodge hopes that the series will serve as a much needed reminder to audience members that there is still a lot of work left to be done in the fight for equality.

“I think the series calls to light a very ugly time in American history where people were upholding morals and ethics that weren’t just,” Hodge said. “These are morals and ethics that people are still fighting to uphold today and I think it’s a great reminder why we can never go back there.”

Pokaski believes that people need to do more than just think about these problems, though. They also need to act.

“The one thing we talked about that really affected us was how active is your activism?” Pokaski said. “We all can kind of go online and like or dislike something on Facebook, but we’re telling the stories of people who risked their homes for what they believed in or risked their lives to run for freedom.”

After filming the series, the actors admitted that the show left an impact on the way they think about issues regarding race, economics, and equality.

Hodge, who plays a slave fleeing captivity named Noah, found a greater appreciation for the everyday things that he wouldn’t have been able to do 200 years ago. The experience has made him less concerned about what he calls “champagne problems.”

“Simple things like being able to take a shower or go grab a snack out the fridge,” Hodge said. “What these people dealt with on a regular basis, it just changes your whole perspective on what you complain about, what you consider are problems in real life.”

He added, “You at least are allowed to dream while these people were not.”

At the end of the day, Pokaski hopes that Underground will serve as a call to action for the public, reminding them that you don’t need a mask and a cape in order to be a superhero.

“This was the first integrated civil rights movement,” Pokaski said. “We should be taking that spirit and running with it and fighting oppression and fighting voter suppression and all of the things we know are wrong and we know we should stand up against.”