Latest Hollywood Trend? Underground Railroad Chic.

Culture Watch
tags: racism, Civil War, Underground Railroad

Roy E. Finkenbine is Professor of History and Director of the Black Abolitionist archive at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Hollywood is in the midst of what might be termed Underground Railroad chic – a wave of film and television productions telling the story of how black and white Americans came together before the Civil War to help freedom seekers escape from southern slavery. Stevie Wonder is producing an eight-part miniseries entitled Freedom Run that is expected to appear on NBC in 2017. It is based on the stories of three runaway slave couples in Betty DeRamus’s Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad. HBO is adapting Bound for the Promised Land, historian Kate Clifford Larson’s fine biography of Harriet Tubman, for film and will begin shooting next year. Producer Charles King is partnering with others on a project entitled Harriet that will bring Tubman’s life to the big screen. All of these undertakings are sparked in part by our post-Ferguson racial climate and by the recent success of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

The first of these to appear is the television series Underground on WGN America. Produced by John Legend, it tells the story, over ten episodes in season one, of the “Macon 7,” a diverse group of slaves who flee a plantation in Georgia in the 1850s and head toward the Ohio River. Although cinematically arresting, and, for the most part, visually authentic, the script is rife with mythologies and historical and geographical anachronisms that will greatly trouble Underground Railroad historians and have already upset a few Hollywood scriptwriters. One writer said, simply, “it’s awful.” Another volunteered that the production was “grossly irresponsible. The polar opposite of what we aim to accomplish.”

Underground perpetuates a range of ahistorical mythologies about the Underground Railroad. The “Macon 7” ran away to the North from the lower South, even though that almost never happened. They represent a large group of runaways traveling together, even though slaves nearly always ran away alone or in groups of two or three. They were aided by white activists operating in the lower South, even though most runaways didn’t receive assistance from the Underground until they reached or neared the free states. They followed a detailed “map song” to freedom, even though there is no nineteenth-century evidence of such things. The song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which purports to be a “map song,” is mentioned, but it has been shown to be a twentieth-century invention. There is even a mention of slaves using “quilt codes” to escape, although that too has been shown to be a modern creation. At one point, the slaves are told that once they get across the Ohio River they’ll be free, in spite of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed masters and slave catchers to go anywhere in the nation to recover their slaves.

The Underground Railroad is portrayed, incorrectly, as a highly-organized network operating throughout both the North and the South. In one scene, an activist couple in the lower South send and receives messages from the famous abolitionist William Still in Philadelphia. When the couple decide to “step up” their involvement in aiding freedom seekers, the network sends out a construction crew to renovate their house to better accommodate and hide runaways. Of course, they immediately adopt the stereotypical measure of placing a light in the window to direct fugitives to their door.

Historical anachronisms abound – ones that could have been corrected by a modicum of research on the part of the writers. One episode opens in a candy shop in Philadelphia with a close-up of Necco wafers, even though the New England Confectionary Company and the Necco brand didn’t come about until 1901. A slave catcher’s mentally-deranged wife sings “Little Brown Church in the Vale,” even though the song wasn’t popularized until the 1890s. Another episode opens with an illiterate slave quoting the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, although it didn’t assume its present form until 1912. The runaways are hidden in Native American villages in north Georgia, two decades after Indian Removal from that region. There is a scene at a rural public school in Georgia, even though Georgia had no public school system until after the Civil war. Furthermore, twentieth-century vocabulary appears throughout the production – the term “lockdown,” for example. In one of the more amusing historical anachronisms, the wife of an activist does a suggestive can-can dance on top of the piano in the Georgia governor’s mansion as a way of temporarily distracting law enforcement officials. Curiously, even in the midst of the Victorian era, she is not arrested or chastised.

Similarly, geographical anachronisms abound. One of the most troubling has slaves in Georgia talking in one scene about the notorious kidnapper of blacks, Patty Cannon. In another, she is operating in Kentucky. Cannon operated along the Mason-Dixon Line dividing the slave states of Maryland and Delaware from the free state of Maryland. Available evidence, however, suggests that her real exploits and her reputation never reached beyond this narrow band of territory.

Mythologies and anachronisms haven’t stifled the success of Underground. WGN America has already announced that the show will return for a second season. In the final episode of season one, one of the “Macon 7,” having reached the free states, becomes a “student” of Harriet Tubman and prepares to go back to the South and “steal slaves.” Those of us who research, teach, and write about the Underground Railroad are holding our breath. One can only imagine what further errors and inventions lay in store.

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