*From taking a stand against police brutality to detailing the struggle for civil rights in his Oscar-winning song “Glory,” John Legend using his fame and musical talent to bring worthy situations to light.
Such is the case with “Underground” an upcoming WGN series that shines a light on the heroic African-American slaves who fought hard for their freedom while enduring all types of dehumanization, racism and cruelty. Starring Jurnee Smollett-Bell, the 10-episode drama also features Aldis Hodge and Christopher Meloni, in addition to a guest appearance from “Empire” star Jussie Smollett.
In an interview with Essence, Legend, who serves as an executive producer on “Underground,” opens up about the show, as well as his reasons for being involved with “Underground” and a steamy interracial scene that seemingly felt like it came straight out of “Scandal.”
Scroll below for highlights from the interview:
What made you want to be a part of this project?
We have a production company called Get Lifted Film Company and our whole mission is to tell interesting stories; stories that we personally connect with and that we can help get out to the people and hopefully, they’ll connect with as well. This is the kind of stuff I studied in college and I knew about this a lot, but I didn’t ever see it on television in this way. When (executive producers) Joe (Pokaski) and Misha (Green) reached out, I was so excited by the idea that this show could even exist, and that we could do something now that could make a story from 150 years ago feel so relevant and urgent and full of action and intrigue and suspense.
With the Southern Rites documentary you did for HBO and now this, your production company seems to be on a mission. Is that reading too much into it?
It’s part of our mission but it’s not the only kinds of stories we want to tell. As a production team, we want to tell a range of stories and not just about the racial divide. It is an important part of our history. In college I studied African-American history and culture, and I was an English major as well, so these resonate with me. This particular story represents such an interesting part of American history. I think it’s important that we understand what happened 150 years ago for some more context about what’s happening now. We’re still having conversations about the racial divide and the things that divide us are the things that we hopefully can come together on.
There’s an interracial sex scene that was really racy and complex. I know you’re going to get a lot of tweets on that one. What are we supposed to feel in that moment? Repulsed? Turned on?
People had sex back then. [Laughs] This is real life, you know. These things all happened. Obviously, that’s how light-skinned people exist. Clearly that [scene] was a more consensual one than others.
Thankfully, it’s not fetishized but that is still a complicated scene.
Right. Even when it’s consensual, there’s a power dynamic that makes it less than consensual because clearly she is owned by that person and her life is in that person’s hands. So it can’t be truly consensual in any sense. Either way, this was really happening.
It felt like a scene out of Scandal. Like wow, they’re going there.
Yeah. It’s real and we wanted to take it off of the wall of the museum and make it real. And I think all of the things we try to do in the show, we’re trying to make it real so we really connect to the characters. That scene is so important because you understand that even though he’s truly the one in power, she has a bit of power as well. And you see Ernestine – she’s my favorite character. She’s incredible.
For more of Legend’s interview, click here. “Underground” is set to premiere in March on WGN.