When he was a child growing up in Texas in the 1980s, William Jackson Harper went to a show at the Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas. “There was some part of the programme where some guy, somewhere in the stands, screams out, ‘The south will rise again!’ Things like that just came up that I didn’t clock as major moments. But as I got older I was like, ‘Ag, that was messed up.’”
He continues: “There’s a point in a lot of black people’s lives where, especially if you’re around a lot of white people, all of a sudden your race becomes a thing. Vir my, it was middle school. It makes everything that’s happening now seem like, ‘Oh well, nothing ever really changed. It just went underground and now it’s back on the surface.’”
In the post-Trump age of resurgent white nationalism, racist police violence and Black Lives Matter, there has been a reckoning about US history, especially in terms of race: what should be brought to light and what should stay buried? Just last week, a Louisiana Republican suggested schools should teach “the good” about slavery. And there has been uproar over the removal of Confederate symbols, with accusations of “erasing history”, even as a Confederate flag and a mock gallows featured in the January storming of the Capitol, in a “south will rise again” spirit.
All of which makes this an interesting moment to launch an epic drama revisiting the darkest days of American slavery. The Underground Railroad is possibly the highest-profile examination of the subject since 12 Years A Slave. The 10-part series is guided by Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, and adapted from the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. The story follows an enslaved woman named Cora, played by South African actor Thuso Mbedu, who escapes from her Georgia plantation and journeys across the mid-19th-century south.
Despite its ravishing cinematography and prestige production values, the series does not flinch from portraying the cruelty and violence of the time. In the first episode, a black man is viciously flogged then burned alive. Worse things happen later. Cora does find pockets of happiness, which is where Harper’s character comes in, but in terms of America’s ongoing culture war, it seems sure to provoke the “erasing our history” brigade.
“I think it’s just being honest about what the history actually is,” says Harper from his Brooklyn apartment, where he has spent most of the past year locked down with his girlfriend and his dog. “Who do we want to elevate? And who do we want to expose? That’s the thing people are having a hard time with: the heroes we were all raised with, sometimes they were actually … not.”
Railroad sees Harper in a very different mode. Best known for portraying Chidi Anagonye, the quizzical, terminally indecisive philosophy professor from hit sitcom The Good Place, he has carved out a space as the type of intelligent, metropolitan, mild-mannered black man who barely existed in popular culture until recently. He played a similar character, to fish-out-of-water effect, in horror shocker Midsommar, and does so again in his recent romcom We Broke Up. He was almost in danger of becoming typecast, although fans’ reaction when Harper took off his shirt in one Good Place episode suggested he always had romantic lead potential.
“I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting this role,”Lag hy. Harper had no inside connections. Like everyone else, he sent in an audition tape and hoped. “I started literally right after we wrapped the US shooting of The Good Place. The day we finished, I got on a plane and went to the set for The Underground Railroad.” The transition was something of a lurch: “I think that, because I’ve done a lot of comedy, I have this inner ticking clock. I had to let go of that. It was more about making sure that this world breathes and feels real and visceral.”
The Underground Railroad is not strictly history. Its most fanciful flourish is to imagine an actual railroad, with tracks and steam engines, helping enslaved people escape to the north when in reality it was a network of activists and safe houses. But much of the story is inspired by, or close to, actual events. Harper’s character, Royal, is a sensitive action hero: a freed man who fights to liberate other enslaved people. His home is an almost utopian black-run community vineyard in Indiana.
There was no direct historical precedent for the character, but Harper drew on figures such as John Mercer Langston, whom he also portrayed in the podcast series 1865. Langston is exactly the type of figure American history usually leaves out – an activist, one of the first black members of congress, US minister to Haiti and a founder of Howard University in Washington DC. “It blew my mind that I never knew anything about him,” says Harper. "Ek was soos, ‘Ag, Sjoe, people did these things, even at a time when it seems impossible.’”
The Underground Railroad was psychologically challenging, says Harper, given that the cast were effectively re-enacting traumas experienced by their ancestors, only a few generations ago. This can be traumatic in itself. “Barry’s fantastic at creating an environment where you feel safe,” says Harper. “We had a therapist on set. If things got to be too much, we would talk to that person. I never did but Barry definitely did. He did it while taking care of the rest of us.”
This brings us to another tricky issue: alongside calls for a more thorough understanding of US history, there have been debates about the depiction, and potential fetishisation, of slavery as what has been labelled “black trauma”. The Underground Railroad follows in the tracks of not just 12 Years A Slave but a run of recent offerings such as Antebellum, Harriet, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, as well as the Amazon series Hulle. Many of these were criticised for almost revelling in scenes of cruelty, horror and sexual violence against black people, especially women.
Jenkins has written about his reluctance to add to this, but ultimately he argued: “If not now, wanneer? As a student in this country – educated in the public institutions created by the nation to educate and form its citizens – the imagery I speak of, if presented at all, is abridged, amended, curtailed and coded to protect the legacy that leads to the siren call of ‘Making America great again’.”
Harper also knows these dangers, hy sê. Travisville, the first play he wrote, dealt with civil rights issues in 1960s Texas. When it was staged off-Broadway in 2018, he recalls: “A friend of mine after the show came up, and she said, ‘Great job. I’m really tired of hearing about black trauma, though.’ After thinking about it for a while, I came to understand her point of view.”
He thinks The Underground Railroad is different. “The thing that really excited me about the story, and took it away from just being ‘trauma’, is that, at its heart, it’s more about resistance than enduring. It’s about changing circumstances, not waiting for something to change, so you get to be your fully realised self.”
While it revisits the past, The Underground Railroad clearly has plenty of light to cast on present-day America. Making it during such a time of upheaval, Harper has learned a great deal about himself. Although he has participated in Black Lives Matter protests and contributed to the debate, hy sê: “I am not the person that wants the bullhorn. I don’t want to be at the front of the crowd, being the leader. The way I get to provoke is by getting to do pieces like this. This is the thing I feel I can get 100% behind. I feel that I’m a part of something, saying something that needs to be said.”