In the past couple of days, the whiteness of Hollywood has come into serious question. Though the Oscar nominations were a huge disappointment, there's been a little bit of uplifting news as far as diversity in mainstream media is concerned. I'm referring to the underground railroad miniseries coming to NBC. NBC entertainment chair Robert Greenblatt made the announcement on Monday morning, with another NBC exec commenting, "these unforgettable moments in history, which have never been told on television before, are both incredibly painful and heartwarming and need to be presented to the world."
The 8-hour miniseries is called Freedom Run, and it's based on the book Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories From the Underground Railroad by Betty DeRamus. The book is a collection of anecdotes about escaped slaves traveling North and the perils they encountered along the way. The show will take three of these adventurous love stories and intertwine them into a narrative. NBC described it as "specific epic journeys and love stories, each based on actual people."
It will also be a musical on Broadway, with the phenomenal Stevie Wonder tentatively writing the score. Wonder will also serve as an executive producer on the NBC show. B. Swibel, Adam Westbrook, and Charles Randolph-Wright will write the script.
This news is super exciting for a whole bunch of reasons. First, there's the diversity factor. The book tells the story of slaves, and the description suggests that they, rather than any white people who helped along the way, will be the focal point. This in itself is an accomplishment, though it's also great that black men like Randolph-Wright and Wonder are on board as producers.
The underground railroad is a chapter in history that is widely known to American audiences. "It's not actually a railroad underground" is something that disappointed the majority of 8-year-olds in the two weeks of public school devoted to their slavery unit. Now, the ubiquity of this narrative in mainstream America might have to do with the fact that it's the kind of story that sits well with white audiences, one that involves nice white people helping slaves from the mean slaveowners. However, since this is based on real accounts by escaped slaves, I hope that it will provide an honest look at the underground railroad and the institution of slavery. Like Piper's story serving as the "Trojan horse" in the diverse masterpiece that is Orange is the New Black, this recognizable bit of history provides a way to tell the long silenced stories of slaves, and of the historical monstrosity of white Americans.
In light of this, I actually have no idea why there haven't been more underground railroad stories in the mainstream media. Not even a Harriet Tubman biopic, even though Tracy Jordan tried. It's adventurous, with lots of tension built in. It's hard to imagine this not being a captivating television show. My only concern: will eight hours be long enough?