*We spoke with Common this morning after a press conference for his upcoming AMC series “Hell on Wheels,” a drama set around the building of the transcontinental railroad just after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The series follows this volatile Reconstruction period from several points of view – including newly-freed slaves who were looking to earn a living by working on the railroad. But, Common’s character finds it difficult to take orders from yet another white boss – and a former slave owner at that.
“The fact that my character is a freed slave who is of mixed race – so his father was his master -that is already confusing. And at the same token, it’s like man, I’m out here in a landscape where they’re saying I have freedom. I can read. I read the Emancipation Proclamation but it’s not being practiced. So what do I do? I have to keep trudging on trying to create this environment where I can be seen as a human being and as a free person.”
“Hell on Wheels” is clearly the first television series since HBO’s “Deadwood” to deal with this time period without a shred of political correctness to temper the uncomfortable issues of race. In both series, blacks were shown having to deal with not just racism, but the overall challenges facing Americans on the frontier.
Common’s character Elam Jefferson is defiant and unwilling to bow down anymore – to anyone, particularly a man who once owned slaves. The pilot episode makes this perfectly clear.
But until the series premieres in November, all folks have seen is the headline that Common is playing an emancipated slave on a TV show this fall.
In the bonus audio below, we asked him if he’s received backlash from African American fans who have grown weary of any black actor taking on a role linked to slavery.