Beyond Cinema - Issue 11, 2016: JOHN LEGEND: THE UNDERGROUND GETS LIFTED
JOHN LEGEND: THE UNDERGROUND GETS LIFTED
Words by Elliot V. Kotek; Photos by Scott McDermott
He is an Oscar winner, a Golden Globe and Grammy winner, and in addition to being one of the best-known and most celebrated performance artists on the planet, he has continued to expand his output to various forms of media. By utilizing his position in pop culture, this Legend’s voice is not limited to the strength of his vocal chords, but has been and continues to be amplified to the Earth’s corners via film, television, music and engaged social action campaigns.
That this Legend has the power to change the very fabric of our societies is testament to a spirit that is conscious of the opportunities at hand as well as the real responsibilities associated with the position to which he’s ascended.
It’s been 12 years since Legend’s debut album, “Get Lifted,” landed, and 10 years since being welcomed to Grammy’s hallowed halls with the award of Best New Artist. While his biggest single to date is the massive hit “All of Me,” the strength of Legend’s ability to pursue multiple streams of creativity and influence is a study in consummate collaboration.
From his sophomore album collaborations with Kanye West, will.i.am, Raphael Saadiq and Andre 3000, through to his collaboration with Common on “Glory” for Ava Duvernay’s Selma, the music is just the tip of the iceberg to the John Legend industry.
Together with Mike Jackson and Ty Siklorius as the principles of Get Lifted Film Co, the team has already made their mark with documentaries such as 2015’s “Southern Rites,” and have formidable feature films in development with Lions Gate (LaLa Land starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and John Legend) and Sony Pictures (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Black Count,” to be directed by Cary Fukunaga). Their television pursuits run deep (including an overall deal with Legendary TV), and include projects in development with ABC Studios and CBS Television, while the recently launched “Underground” on WGN has screened at the White House, trended #1 on Twitter, drew more than 3 million viewers in its first few weeks, and is WGN’s highest-ever performing original drama.
Impressively, the lists continue, and we’d be remiss in omitting to mention the philanthropic efforts that complement the many projects which contain social impact content. 2007’s ShowMeCampaign.org focused on education to lift people out of poverty; 2015’s #freeAmerica campaign (http://letsfreeamerica.com/) seeks change in the criminal justice system and a change in the narrative of America’s mass incarceration; he supports the innovative education platform LRNG and many education-based non-profits.
Quite simply, his impact is far-reaching, his efforts important, and his creativity impressive. We were proud to have him and his “Underground” team – Jurnee Smollett Bell, Aldis Hodge, Jessica de Gouw and Alano Miller, in our AFCI/Beyond Cinema Studio at Sundance, and super proud to have them in our publication.
View the exclusive Beyond Cinema interview with John Legend and Jurnee Smollett below
(click the image to view the video clip)
Read the complete transcript of the interview below:
Welcome to the Beyond Cinema Studio, John, Jurnee. Getting “Underground” on air was probably an adventure in itself, and the fact that we're getting content like this is exciting because it opens up opportunities to have conversation and dialogue about some very real things.
John, at what point did you join the journey, no pun intended… Jurnee.
John Legend: I get “legend” puns, she gets “journey” puns. We're just a walking pun factory over here. We joined as Joe [Pokaski] and Misha [Green] had already written the series out and they sent us the first couple scripts and we're in the process of shooting and they said, “Would you guys like to join as executive producers and particularly oversee the musical aspects of the show as well?” When I read the script, I was just like, "This is so riveting. I can't wait to see what happens next". I heard who was in it. Such a wonderful cast. Such a great team and I knew that WGN America was already really behind the show. It just seemed like a perfect thing for our production company to get involved with, and we've had such a great journey working with the team and helping to create the vision, helping to create the soundscape for the show. It's been a lot of fun.
In the trailer, We noticed the “Light Em Up” track by Grayson Voltaire and Robin Loxley and Emanuel Vo Williams.
John: Yeah, there's some good stuff on there. We open the show with Kanye's song, “Black Skinhead” and we have some really cool songs throughout. I co-wrote the original song that we used for the theme of the show and we just tried to have the music lend even more energy to an already energetic and bold and really intriguing show and make the show feel really alive.
Speaking of music making a show come alive. Congratulations on Selma and the Oscar--
John: Thank you.
--and the awareness and everything that came out of that. But to roll from that into something else that can also double down as a passion project – it must feel like you're in a really good flow--
Jurnee Smollett Bell: Yeah, you are. What is with that?
John: [Laughs] I'm so lucky. I get to work with such great people and such great creators that are writing amazing scripts and playing amazing shows and films together, and I try to do what I can to help.
Jurnee, we were talking to Aldis and Jessica and Alano about being able to be part of a project where it’s not only an acting gig, but also a gig that enables you to be able to express yourself on a human level.
Jurnee: My goodness, it's so fulfilling. As an artist, you yearn for projects like this. Especially as a female. Rarely do we get roles that are this complex, and aren’t just the “girlfriend” character. Beyond that, to be a part of a project where you're giving voice to the voiceless. You're telling stories. You're putting faces to these thousands of men and women who were so brave and bold, and it's a cliché but we really wouldn't be sitting here today if it weren't for men and women like the characters that we play in “Underground.” It's humbling; honestly, it's an honor to be part of.
BC: When you're working on a project like this, that has relevance and resonance today – with the issue of diversity being a massive topic of discussion, and mass incarceration is a massive issue that we also have right now in the U.S. – which, arguably, is it's own form of oppression. When you're working on a project like this - set in a very specific time period, do you actively speak about how it relates to today?
John: I think sometimes, it's easier to try to forget the history of this country and how foundational slavery was to the history of this country. When you talk about the racial problems in this country, it's easy to think of things in a vacuum – but, if you actually put context around it, you start to understand why this tension exists. Why there are ghettos. They weren't magically created. They didn't just magically show up. That was policy that led us there.
Slavery led to share cropping. Share cropping led to housing discrimination and job discrimination and all these other things. It's all part of a continuum of American history. And I think we're making progress all the time but understanding the history of it helps you understand the context, so you don't think it's just out of the blue that people might actually have something to protest about. People might be frustrated or people might actually get violent for one reason or another. If you understand the context, then it makes a lot more sense.
When you're a rising artist and you found yourself having a voice, in a position that you could use for all sorts of issues, is that something that you welcomed or was that something that you struggled with?
John: I always wanted to do it. I actually wrote an essay when I was 15 years old for McDonalds. They do the Black History Makers of Tomorrow competition and I wrote an essay and said I wanted to be a famous singer and I wanted to use my position to help my community. I've been wanting to do this since I was a kid, and I feel fortunate that I'm in a position to actually be able to do it. The least of my worries is whether or not we get Oscars. The most important thing, I think, is worrying about the kids in our communities where they have a chance to live a productive, healthy life, free from discrimination, free from oppression. I want that more than I care about awards or anything else. I think those are the things I care about the most.
BC: Tell us about the set down in Baton Rouge?
Jurnee: Love Baton Rouge, but it was ... It helped make our portrayal more authentic because we were in the conditions. We had mud caked on our legs, we were running in the bayous, there were crocodiles. We had a snake wrangler who was catching snakes right off on the side of us while we're trying to do a scene, you're trying to be focused and they're catching venomous snakes. It was definitely tough, but when you think about it in context, these were men and women that actually had to run 600, 700, 1,000, 1,500 miles at a time through these sorts of conditions, so if the slave catcher didn't kill you, the conditions did. To make that choice to run was a very difficult choice to make.
Misha Green and Joe (the co-creators) talk about having read a letter where a young woman wrote about struggling with that choice. “Do I run or do I not run?” I sit here as a young woman in 2016 and I'm, like, "Of course you run", but it was not that simple.
John: Yeah, so many couldn't. Characters like the one [Jurnee] played, which are completely based on historical characters, those were the exception to the rule.
I imagine it gives you a global perspective, too. We're seeing all this news about the refugees and what they're going through--
John: I think that's the power of art, too. It helps you see other people's humanity and you understand a little more of the anguish that people feel. I think storytellers have the ability to connect us in that way.
Jurnee: Yeah, absolutely. Also, one thing that this show does is, it explores the power of human will. You might think you can't do something and you might be up against the most impossible conditions and yet somehow, if you're willful enough, you can overcome that.
SIDEBAR: Beyond Cinema also chatted with “Underground’s” Aldis Hodge, Jessica de Gouw and Alano Miller – here’s an excerpt:
Aldis Hodge: As you would assume, "Underground," is about the Underground Railroad, enslaved Americans fighting for freedom, running for freedom and all the trials and tribulations that come along with that. To the root of its core, this show is ... it's American history. It's about Americans trying to establish the foundation for where we are today and where we still have yet to go.
It's not only talking about enslaved black Americans. We're talking about white Americans as well, who feel mentally enslaved because they live in this contagious environment that they don't agree with as is represented by Jessica[‘s character] who plays an abolitionist who is fighting for black rights.
Jessica De Gouw: What the show does beautifully is it gives voice to so many different people. It's not just one peoples versus another, it's individuals trying to explain a very different time.
I think the show has the power to start a conversation, many conversations.
Alano Miller: I don't think we really understood what the weight of the show would be and how powerful it could be. Now, looking back, we go, "Oh. Not only do we want to promote the fact that it's this amazing show, but what it can do for so many people. It changes the perspective on slavery in that it's not about the victimization. It's about the revolution. These are heroes and we're celebrating them as opposed to saying they were weak.
Instead of saying “They couldn't do this. They didn't have. They were beaten. They were oppressed.” It's like, “No. They were powerful. They were intelligent. They were creative.”
Aldis: As far as the show goes, we're not forcing a point. We're speaking the truth of what went on. There were many diaries that were read and scriptures that were written from actual enslaved Americans. We pulled from the truth. Just as we have been inspired, we would hope that this show inspires others; and at least offers a different perspective on how to treat one another as people.
The thing that I love about it is it really shines a light on what it really means to have true strength, what it means to be a hero; what it really means to be a martyr.
In the case of where we all stand, sometimes as a group, everybody doesn't think the same way or believe the same things, but we eventually still come back around. [Our characters] Cato and Noah, they bump heads. Eventually, they're going for the same goal ...
[And] from the time that you turn on the TV, man. It keeps you going. It kind of teaches you without you even realizing you learned something.
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