This week’s episode of Underground, “Minty” came at a special time. Yes, it literally aired two hours earlier than it usually does and was rebroadcast throughout the evening by WGN but it also ran during a time in this nation’s history where Harriet Tubman’s words struck with such fervent urgency that it played dual roles in highlighting not just the transgressions of our past but our current distasteful political climate. As I spoke with series director Anthony Hemingway a few weeks back he was excited to share the news of what he referred to as “Harriet Tubman’s TEDTalk.” It was a novel idea. One main character, one full hour (less commercial breaks) carrying an entire episode on their back. This was a stark break-away from the normal structure of each episode which checks in with several different characters during the course of the hour, includes several action-packed scenes and a heavy-hitting soundtrack to boot.
When I heard the news I was curious how this would be pulled off. Anthony admitted he and the writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski had never taken on anything like this before. This was a huge risk. Would audiences who had become accustomed to the serialized telling of this story be willing to have things slowed down to a simmer? There were so many ways his could have all gone sideways if left in the wrong hands. Like if Nas’ “One Mic” had been released by Chingy. Thankfully, this landed in the hands of Aisha Hinds (Beyond The Lights) who initially auditioned for the role of Harriet Tubman with some trepidation, unsure if she was the worthy vessel for Ms. Tubman’s story. SPOILER ALERT—- Hinds, in a word, was BRILLIANT.
I spoke with Aisha earlier in the week about the role and how the concept of Harriet came to fruition and she expressed feeling nervous when she received her call-in by the producers. It was only after some gentle prodding from her friend Niecy Nash (Gotta have a clean house!!!) over brunch that she decided to go for it. Through tears (Aisha’s and my own- Good Lort, y’all!) she expressed her desire to “sit with this episode for at least a month, to study, submerge myself, and store [Tubman’s] words into the most sacred corners of my heart.” The script ran forty-five pages of almost complete monologue and Aisha insists it was “divine intervention” that guided her steps in memorizing it all for the dress rehearsal.
While on set she was offered the opportunity to have lines fed to her via an earpiece with cue cards being too obstructive to the camera shots Hemingway needed to capture to use. She declined and delivered a performance from memory and what she referred to as “a call to surrender”. With hugs from the cast and crew including a very-pregnant Jurnee Smollett-Bell, production began.
“Playing Harriet Tubman is two things: a great honor and a tremendous call to duty as we examine how familiar the pain of our past can be felt in the present. In sight of and in spite of the overwhelming obstacles stacked against her, she transcended bondage and inspired generations in the pursuit of liberty.”
Hinds masterfully conveys the unwavering strength, charm and vulnerability of Harriet, telling of her past as a young slave girl, her early-desire to escape the confines of her existence through rebellion, her all-too-human jealousy upon hearing the news of her husband’s remarriage all the way to her courageous travels up and down the eastern states providing safe passage for other escaped slaves. There’s no mystery why Tubman’s character plays a pivotal role for Underground’s Macon Seven.
Rosalee and Noah have proven themselves to be quite wily and resilient but it is Black Moses who leads the way. Not just a sermon on the dangers of political stagnation, although it could find it’s home at any Sunday-morning pulpit for sure, “Minty” serves as a call to action for those organized in the struggle and those struggling within themselves to find the “freedom coming from pain”. Hinds’ Tubman speaks on the moment we begin to see “past all the things we know” and allowing ourselves the emotional bandwidth to actualize our beliefs. She references this as everything that leads us to our calling “the before” and the freedom that comes along with the “after”.
While Tubman was a very devout woman (at one point she mentions the dialogue she began to have with “him” brought on by prayer and a freak-accident that caused her “seizures of divinity”) Hinds accurately portrays the inner-passion required to be able to break through. If we aren’t willing to put in the work, no prayer nor vision board will get us any closer to our goals.
Toward the end Hinds addresses a rowdy audience who quarrel over violent versus non-violent activism while addressing the abolition of slavery. She warns of “arguing over methods…fervor with no effect”, a message that is especially prescient in the past few days which have seen in-fighting (justified or not) between social justice activists via social media over who holds claim to the more “authentically black” experience. Tubman posits that while getting our ducks in a row and everyone on message is critical to the cause it should never eclipse the work that we do in dismantling the racist institutions of injustice. That’s a message I think all black folk can get behind be they descendants of slaves, immigrants, dark-skinned, light-skinned or barely passing like Georgia.
“The seed determines the fruit. The foundation determines the lasting effect of the infrastructure. We live in a country whose foundation was built on the backs of the enslaved and the principles of slavery. The humanity of our country is shaped by the ideals of enslaving people.”
And let the choir say, “Amen.”
Jordan Kauwling is an early thirties Philadelphian but she tells everyone she's in her late thirties because she doesn't understand how math works. When she's not busy writing, singing, eating all the falafel or unsuccessfully finishing another craft project you can catch her talking junk on Twitter.