Harriet Tubman. That’s probably the first and last thought for most non-Americans when the words “railroad” and “history” are strung together.
Hell On Wheels, a show which premiered on TopTV’s FX last night, attempts to change that. The most significant way this “period Western” has tried to do that is by using Common as their biggest drawcard.
Strangely, the veteran US rapper is described in various press releases and online as a singer. It’s like when main- stream US media were quick to label Bobby Brown a rapper when referring to the troubled marriage he had with the late Whitney Houston.
So let me set the record straight. Common is not a singer. The rapper formerly known as Common Sense would probably let you punch him in the chest (wink, wink) before he allowed you to label him a singer. After all, this is the same man who called out Young Money rapper Drake for being sweet: You ain’t no motherf*****g Sinatra, Common ad libbed on So Sweet. That means Common thinks Drake is singing way too much on his songs.
On the same song, taken off his ninth album, The Dreamer/The Believer, Common raps: When it comes to hip hop, it begins and ends with me. But for the past couple of years, Common has put his rap alias on hold and used the names he was born with, Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr, for credits in his films.
His latest on-screen endeavour is in Hell On Wheels, in which he plays Elam Ferguson, a recently freed slave. It’s 1856 when Ferguson puts himself into the mix and becomes part of a community that settles around the first transcontinental railroad that is dubbed Hell On Wheels.
The star of the show is really Cullen Bohannon (played by Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier who is hellbent on making whoever murdered his wife pay. He is also in charge of overseeing the workers on the railroad. Workers who include Ferguson.
As expected, Common is a tiny, dark spot in a sea of lighter hues. Shot in Canada, this series addresses those issues that may be difficult to discuss at the dinner table. For instance, hearing the N-word said in everyday conversation, not by black people, nor in a rap context.
The Associated Press reported that Common had something to say about being on the receiving end of the word.
“Even if you try to think that they’re acting, it still just doesn’t feel right, you get that feeling like, ‘Man, this is not good’.”
The Grammy-winner even told The Day online that “even if a fellow actor apologises before you do a scene, there is a certain anger and angst that rises up in you. You feel disrespected and belittled”.
Dubbed a “conscious” emcee, Common has also admitted that it’s important to not sugar-coat how things really were in the days of slavery and that’s why he wanted to be a part of Hell on Wheels.
If we’re being honest, though, it might have been easier for Com to saddle up and get on a horse in this Western than for him to convince people he really can act. Some people’s faces still go into automatic cringe mode whenever his role in Just Wright is mentioned.
Never mind that he got to play TI’s dad in American Gangster, we prefer the rapper with a manicured beard to speak less and flex more, like he did in Wanted, or Date Night, or even Smokin’ Aces. But we’ll give Hell On Wheels a chance for him to take his shirt off.
• Hell On Wheels airs on FX (TopTV channel 110) every Sunday at 9.15pm.