How Common redefines slave roles on AMC's 'Hell on Wheels'

OPINION - It's no secret that black audiences don't generally take kindly to roles that even reference slavery or servitude for that matter.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

As a hip-hop artist, Common has a reputation for being one of the most consistently conscious spitters in the game but, until now, his acting roles haven’t conveyed the passion and spirit that has helped him maintain a respectable and long-lived music career. With Hell on Wheels, he enters new territory.

In the AMC series, which premiered November 6, he has taken a role that many would consider very risky, especially given his primary career. But, yet, playing former slave Elam Ferguson in 1865 as he works, along many others, including former Confederate soldiers, building the transcontinental railroad, is proving to be one of his smartest career choices to date.

It’s no secret that black audiences don’t generally take kindly to roles that even reference slavery or servitude for that matter. For example, The Help may have made a lot of money and might just garner Viola Davis and break-out star Octavia Spencer Oscar nominations but many African-American critics have come out quite vocally against the film.

Remember when UPN had the bright idea to broadcast the ‘comedy’ The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, about a kidnapped black, English nobleman who becomes Abraham Lincoln’s valet in the White House during the Civil War era, back in 1998? Even before the show aired, there were ample protests from black community activists against the very premise of the show. Eventually, one episode did air but the show was quickly dumped.

So, imagine the controversy the portrayal of a former slave by a hip-hop artist for television might have generated. It could have been Hell on Wheels at AMC for real. But, surprisingly, the show has been well-received. The mere fact that so little has been written about Common’s role in black outlets is actually a great sign. Too often people don’t even have to watch a show to pan it because, as they say, word travels fast.

Although Common has made it clear that he wants to become a great actor. Up until this point, his desire and execution haven’t quite matched up. His first leading man role for Just Wright opposite rapper-turned-Oscar nominee Queen Latifah didn’t sizzle and many were unimpressed with his brief cameo as the Kwame Kilpatrick-esque, womanizing Mayor Howard for the Single Ladies pilot. So, while his film credits are substantial for sure (American Gangster with Denzel Washington, Wanted with Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie) and have been slowly building since at least 2003, he hasn’t done anything to knock most people’s socks off until maybe now. With Hell on Wheels, he has arguably found his acting lane. Interestingly, playing Elam, a former slave during the all-important post-Civil War/Reconstruction era, may just be the role more in line with what he has long stood for with his music.

With Common’s Elam, we don’t encounter the “yes, massa” black man that Hollywood is so fond of for this period. Elam is a man we have rarely seen depicted on television in contemporary roles, let alone one in an era so fraught for misinterpretation and Common noted that himself in an interview he taped with the Associated Press.

“It’s a very powerful experience to play a slave of the caliber that Elam is because I’ve never really seen characters of that day and age written this way where it’s like you feel the humanity of the person, you feel the intelligence like, meaning the roundness of a human,” he stated.

And that intelligence, humanity and roundness is exactly what we’ve been missing. It’s the little things that Common does in the series as Elam. First, he stands tall. He looks the white men dead in their eyes. He speaks with dignity. His dialect comes across as natural and not cartoonish or buffoonish. It all so doesn’t hurt that he bests a white man in a fight and slits another’s throat.

At all times, he’s dignified. In episode six, “Pride, Pomp and Circumstance,” which aired Sunday, for example, Elam doesn’t back down when Cullen Bohannon, the former slaveholder played by Anson Mount whose life mission is to avenge the death of his Northern wife at the hands of Union soldiers, informs him that he didn’t win their “battle royale” fair and square. Instead, Elam maintains his innocence from cheating, telling Bohannon “If you want a re-match, you know where to find me.”

Even the natural camaraderie among the former slaves that surround Elam is refreshing. There’s a protectiveness and togetherness we don’t often see depicted on screen. Without shouting or even uttering many words on the matter, the audience gets the message that these black men have each other’s backs as well as their mutual love and respect.

Common, it’s been reported, was the first actor cast in this show that has garnered many comparisons to Deadwood which was not nearly as multicultural as this show is. Genre-wise, Hell on Wheels is a western but, unlike Hollywood’s typical depictions, there is a lot of participation from the “injuns” which are, in this case, Cheyenne, as well as the former slaves.

To prepare for the challenging role of Elam, Common says, “I did a heavy-duty amount of research into our history and the history of African people once we arrived on the shores of America. But I must say some of it is just innately in my soul. I am really connected to this struggle, beyond even research.”

Even Common’s look lends itself to playing Elam. His signature bald-head has a timeless quality that connects the Reconstruction era to the here and now. And, because Common looks so much like himself, even as Elam, it’s not hard for the audience to imagine Elam, though he’s from so many centuries back, as being connected to them.
With commercials and stories that teased about Common showing his abs in the “battle royale” scene in episode five “Bread and Circuses,” which aired on December 4, that Elam and Bohannon had, his sex appeal more than likely pulled in viewers who, otherwise, would have skipped the Hell on Wheels experience.

Ratings may be slipping, according to recent reports, but Hell on Wheels is well worth checking out because it’s not a show that’s just entertaining. As Common stated in a recent interview, “it’s an important show” precisely because it deals with “things that we try to hide and put under the table, things that we act like, ‘Oh no, that’s not how I feel’ — some of that is still there from hundreds of years back. It’s still in us and we’ve got to remove it.”

Hell on Wheels won’t totally do that but it is a promising start.