Last year was a banner year for black media. After Moonlight led a record haul for black filmmakers and actors at the Oscars, and with the success of shows like Black-ish and Atlanta on television, the landscape seems much more open to films and shows that provide diverse and often exploratory vantages of the African-American experience than it has been in the past.
One part of this recently acclaimed wave of black media is the WGN America series Underground, which embarks on its second season on March 8. The template of the show, helmed by directors Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, seems well-worn—it follows a group of enslaved people attempting to escape slavery—but its main strength comes as a subtle subversion of works in the American screen canon on slavery, from Amistad to 12 Years a Slave. Unlike many of those films, this show’s ambition isn’t to provide the definitive contemporary commentary on race, slavery, and history, but to use the setting of slavery as a way to explore the kinds of arcs and themes common to most serials. The first season owed a debt to The Walking Dead as much as it did to Roots.
The second season of the show, of course, comes in a different political climate than the first, which aired in 2016. Is there a new weight on the show as a result, and how does it plan to meet heightened expectations with so much successful black media? Does a story of the underground railroad hold special relevance today? To answer those questions, I talked with the show’s executive producer John Legend—who will also be playing Frederick Douglass in its new season—during last week’s premiere at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.