As a devout Underground fan, it pains me to confess that this season has, at times, let me down. I’ve mentioned the abundance of flashbacks, which I feel take away from the overall narrative, and the loss of the powerful, heavy-hitting (and often gut-wrenching) storyline of the Macon 7 has been one that I believe the series has yet to recover from. I was hoping to be blown away by the promise of a TV event like no other, the Harriet Tubman/Aisha Hinds-centric “Minty” episode, and again, it pains me to confess that I wasn’t. While I found the hour to be undeniably inspiring, I also felt that, as a standalone episode, there were some major weaknesses. And what’s incredible is that, in spite of my disappointment, there’s still plenty to talk about after “Minty.”
Here is the good news: Aisha Hinds has arrived. Like most great talents, she’s been at this far longer than we might assume, considering many of us are only becoming familiar with her through Underground and Shots Fired, and she’s likely put in more work than we’ll ever know, to get to this point. “This point” is this moment, with “Minty”—the ability to command 55 minutes of television, in a complete solo performance. What Hinds achieved for Underground is no small thing, and like many viewers, I stand in awe of her work.
There can be no arguing with the fact that Hinds’ performance was a thing of beauty—but I can’t help but ask whether or not this show needed this particular kind of performance, and at this particular point in its second season.
Who is Harriet Tubman, on Underground? When we first saw her as a shadowy figure in the Season One finale, helping Rosalee out of a wagon, I gasped and almost immediately began fantasizing about what a show like Underground would do with a character like Harriet Tubman. I saw her as a gangster, I saw her with her rifle, I saw her as some sort of Michonne-like, slave-stealing superwoman who would be as intelligent and flawed—oh, how I hoped we’d see her flaws—as the other compelling characters on Underground. But we’ve yet to really develop an intimate relationship with her character, and this seems to reflect an overall loss of intimacy that I’ve been feeling with our entire cast.
In a season where we have lost, in a way, the most compelling character on the show (Amirah Vann’s Ernestine), I’ve had high hopes for Harriet. I’d hoped we’d see a character who wasn’t just a symbol of strength, who wasn’t just meant to honor a name we all know, but someone who we’d get to know in new and unusual ways. I’d hoped we’d get to know Tubman intimately via compelling storylines and the kinds of intense, dramatic scenes that captivated us last season. In other words, I wanted to get to know Minty with a story, and not a speech. A Tubman-centric episode is a genius idea, but I wish Underground would have taken such an opportunity to reshape our understanding of this woman in the same way that it has reshaped our understanding of slavery, and womanhood and heroism under slavery.
But the writers made very different choices, and delivered an episode that may not have been what I wanted, but still managed to take my breath away.
For example, when Tubman talks about coming to the realization that her relationship with God was not one-sided, I fully believed that we were in the presence of a prophet.
“This be a conversation.”
It’s hard to think of a woman running back into slavery and freeing hundreds, and not believe in miracles. And Hinds’ performance could convert even a heathen like me to an organized religion that makes room for rebellion and uprisings.
It’s clear that “Minty” is less about a character, or a plot (though much of what she says in the speech will, I assume, echo in future episodes), but about a message, and it’s a powerful one. What is freedom, and how is it achieved? Most of our Underground characters have offered up answers to these questions, but Tubman’s speech allows us to listen to someone clearly and openly walking through the different stages of defining and redefining freedom. Freedom is personal. That’s what Minty’s story is about, among many other things: It’s a portrait of a rebel as a young girl, learning to define freedom for herself. And though I wish that portrait had been shown rather than told to us (imagine how exquisite a short film-like episode could have been—one that showed us young Minty running away, a delicious sugar cube melting in her mouth, or young Minty, fixing her hair in a shop window), these words will sit with me for some time.
“Every time I got hit I took it as an opportunity for defiance. Maybe that there was freedom.”
I’ve championed Underground for being a show that tells the story of blacks living as enslaved people, with an emphasis on acts of rebellion great and small. And yet, I love the argument that Tubman makes here—that rebellion under slavery is still under slavery; that “there ain’t no negotiations on freedom.” So when we celebrate wins against an oppressive system, we must not forget that such wins are still taking place within that system. And that is not freedom.
Of course, nothing was quite so rousing as the end of Tubman’s speech, which focused on The Captain, John Brown. Here, Tubman draws a line in the sand and embraces a violent means to a necessary end—one which black Americans still haven’t seen come to fruition.
“The more he said the word to me, the more it made sense to me. Slavery ain’t just a sin, it’s a state of war… Violence with no cause is brutality. But beatin’ back against those tryna kill you? That’s hope. That’s prayer.”
Tubman doesn’t buy into the idea that a violent uprising makes us like our oppressors, and I can’t help but say Amen to that. Violence with a just cause is not synonymous with the brutality of those in power, those seeking to maintain that power through slavery, rape and other atrocities (including mass incarceration). If we understand oppression as a state of war, we have to make room for people to fight back, by any means necessary.
Perhaps my favorite moment of Tubman’s speech came when she professed to having no martyr complexes. A black woman declaring that she’d rather fight and live than die for the cause is no small thing. Watching such a woman as Aisha Hinds, playing Harriet Tubman, make such a declaration is what makes this episode—regardless of my feelings about its missteps—go down as one of the most necessary hours of TV this year. This be a rebel, Underground declares—a black woman who insists that she has a right to live, to define and redefine freedom, for her own damn self. And as Hinds looks into the camera, her face half-illuminated and half-veiled by Anthony Hemingway’s lens, she dares you to look away, to play a good citizen, while war is brewing.
I don’t know about you, but in an era not so unlike those past, I’ve no intention of letting such a woman down.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.