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March 01, 2017

Poetic Justice

As an actor-producer, John Legend turns to television to tell a tale of courage.

Graham Flashner
  • Steve Schofield

You may know him as the multi-talented singer-songwriter who has won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and 10 Grammy Awards.

But lately, John Legend has been getting accolades for his work as a producer of socially conscious film and television. Part of that work is the acclaimed series Underground, which launches its 10-episode second season March 8 on WGN America.

Set in 1857, Underground is a gripping portrayal of the Macon 7, a group of slaves who, in season one, plotted a daring escape from a Georgia plantation via the secret network known as the Underground Railroad.

Lavishly shot — and scored during season one with contemporary music by artists such as Kanye West and The Weeknd — the series satisfies Legend’s desire to tell inspiring stories and give voice to those who would otherwise remain unheard.

“There’ve been a lot of conversations about diversity in Hollywood,” Legend observes. “So many people want to see stories about people who look like them or their ancestors. We as producers have an opportunity to help those stories get made.”

Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge (as escaped slaves) and Christopher Meloni (as a bounty hunter) head the ensemble cast. The second season incorporates historical figures like humanitarian Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds), abolitionist William Still (Chris Chalk) and slave trader Patty Cannon (Sadie Stratton).

Legend, who serves as an executive producer, will also make a cameo appearance as Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became an esteemed social reformer and statesman. Of his role, Legend alludes only to a pivotal scene that “shows the level of organization and strategy that went into the abolitionist movement.”

In season two, those slaves fortunate enough to have made it to freedom discover that their real journey is only beginning. “Getting to the North isn’t enough to keep them free,” Legend notes. “There’s a lot of people left behind, and as long as those folks aren’t free, our characters won’t be satisfied.”

And while the slaves’ brutal existence makes viewing tough at times, “We don’t wallow in the misery of slavery,” Legend says. “We focus on the courage and boldness of those who dared to fight back.”

Sony Pictures Television produces Underground. In addition to Legend, the series’ executive producers include Misha Green, Joe Pokaski, Anthony Hemingway, Akiva Goldsman, Tory Tunnell, Joby Harold, Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius and Mark Taylor.

Get Lifted (the production company named for Legend’s debut album) has made a splash since its launch five years ago.

The company produced the Obama date movie Southside with You and teamed with Whiplash director Damien Chazelle to produce the Golden Globe–winning and Oscar-nominated musical La La Land. In that film, Legend exuded effortless cool on screen as a bandleader who hires jazz musician Ryan Gosling. He also wrote the song he performs with Gosling, “Start a Fire.”

While Get Lifted continues to push forward on ambitious fronts — Black Wall Street, a series about black wealth in the early 20th century, is in the early stages of development for WGN America — Legend says that music remains his top priority.

With Ariana Grande, he recently recorded a new version of the Beauty and the Beast title song. He’s also gearing up for a tour to promote his latest album, Darkness and Light, which Legend says may be his most introspective.

“I wrote about fatherhood and being a husband,” he says. “I wrote about what it means to struggle for justice and a better world. I tried to make music I felt good about.” 

  


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2017

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