A new vision of Roots, for the age of Obama

By Bethonie Butler

Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) in The History Channel remake of Roots. Photo / Casey Crafford, History Channel
Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) in The History Channel remake of Roots. Photo / Casey Crafford, History Channel

In an era of reboots, you'd think Roots would be the one classic that we could agree we don't need to remake.

When it aired on ABC in January 1977, the miniseries drew an estimated 130 million viewers in the US, won nine Emmys and launched an unprecedented national conversation in America about slavery.

So why is the History Channel airing a four-night, reimagined take?

"There is a whole generation of Americans who don't know this story," said LeVar Burton, who launched his career playing a young Kunta Kinte in the 1977 version, and is an executive producer of the remake. "I believe that if you are alive and in America today, Roots is your story."

Burton also believes that 2016 is a perfect time for Roots to return. Slavery's dark legacy has resurfaced in debates over removing Confederate monuments, and whether Georgetown University owes reparations to descendants of slaves it sold to stay afloat in the 19th century.

But Roots and other pop-culture depictions of slavery don't just speak to the past. The Black Lives Matter movement, born in response to the deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police, plus campus protests and Barack Obama's historic presidency have revealed deep unrest in America - descending from a long history of racial injustice.

In some ways, racial tensions are more palpable today than when Roots first aired, said historian Matthew Delmont, the author of the forthcoming book Making Roots: A Nation Captivated.

"There obviously was a lot of racism in the United States in the 1970s, but by '76-'77 you didn't see these kind of massive public protests and the consistent organised efforts to make this be front-page news in the way that you've seen in the last year or two," Delmont said.

Based on the best-selling 1976 novel, Roots begins with the story of author Alex Haley's 18th-century ancestor, Kinte, a young man in Gambia who is sold into slavery and whose descendants attempt to fight their way to freedom. The reimagined version mirrors its predecessor in a number of ways. Executive producer Mark Wolper's father, David L. Wolper, produced the original.

The star-studded cast includes Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Anna Paquin, Anika Noni Rose, Derek Luke and rapper Tip "T.I." Harris, while the original had John Amos, Ben Vereen, Louis Gossett jnr, Cicely Tyson and Ed Asner. Quincy Jones composed the score for the original's first night; Questlove is the executive music producer this time around.

But producers have touted new research that went into the remake, which makes certain scenes - such as the ones depicting Kinte's life in Gambia - more authentic. The remake puts less emphasis on the white characters and more on its strong female characters. Modern production values make it more film-like, richer in colour, with violence that is more graphic.

And Burton wants the discussion to be different this time.

"What I'm hoping is that this version of Roots will be able to cultivate a conversation that is absent the guilt and absent the shame," Burton said. "The first time around we just had the conversation - it was like having a deep wound that had scabbed over and that scab was just sort of peeled off and everything that was raw was just on the surface."

At a Howard University screening of the remake on April 19, the crowd cheered during a scene (also in the original) that saw Kinte and other Africans attempt to seize control of a slave ship. A panel afterward included discussion of mass incarceration, which some have equated to modern-day slavery.

At a YouTube-broadcast panel after a recent White House screening, activist DeRay Mckesson said "Roots" fits into a larger legacy of struggle.

"We know that we did not discover injustice in August of 2014," Mckesson said, referencing the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. "We didn't invent resistance, and Roots is a powerful reminder that we exist in a legacy of struggle - and that we shouldn't."

Both versions of Roots are difficult to watch. Even if you haven't seen the original in its entirety, there are moments that probably linger in your consciousness - such as Kinte being viciously whipped until he calls himself "Toby," the name given to him by his slave masters. When Kinte tries to escape, part of his foot is chopped off as punishment (an anecdote Kendrick Lamar relates to today's generation in the 2015 song King Kunta). There are brutal rapes, lynchings and separations of families.

The original Roots marked the first time that many Americans saw an authentic portrayal of slavery. In November 1976, NBC aired 1939's Gone With the Wind, in which the breezy depiction of slavery perpetuated "myths about happy slaves and benevolent slave masters," Delmont said.

Roots was also unique in depicting slavery as a multi-generational story, which makes it both uplifting - a voice-over introduces the original as "the triumph of an American family" - and sobering.

"That story is about emotion, it's about ancestry, but it's also about wealth and capital and why so many African-American communities don't have access to those in the way that white communities do," Delmont said.

On-screen slave narratives are a fraught subject, with critics keeping an eye out for historical accuracy, or whether we need another movie about slavery. While Django Unchained won Quentin Tarantino an Oscar for its screenplay, some viewers felt it was a flippant approach to a serious topic.

12 Years a Slave, which won the best picture Oscar in 2014, "in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine - if not cauterise - America's primal wound," Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote in her review. But some viewers felt Brad Pitt's role as an abolitionist represented the"white saviour" trope, which gives white characters the credit for black characters overcoming their struggles. (Pitt was one of the film's producers.)

Two new slavery-themed efforts strike a more revolutionary tone, which help them more explicitly resonate today. In October, Fox Searchlight will release Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of Nat Turner, who in 1831 orchestrated the bloodiest slave uprising in American history. The film received a standing ovation - and the US Grand Jury Prize - at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

WGN America's drama Underground, which premiered in March and portrayed a group of slaves escaping their Georgia plantation, drew a clear parallel to current conversations about race and the value of black lives. #BlackLivesMatter often showed up alongside hashtags for the show. The season finale introduced Harriet Tubman as a character, weeks after the Treasury Department announced that the black abolitionist leader would appear on the US$20 bill.

Silla Ba Dibba (Derek Luke) in The History Channel remake of "Roots" MUST CREDIT: Casey Crafford, History Channel
Silla Ba Dibba (Derek Luke) in The History Channel remake of "Roots" MUST CREDIT: Casey Crafford, History Channel

"I want to be counted," Noah (Aldis Hodge), the leader of Underground's runaways, said in the season finale. "It's our hands that built this country. It's our blood that's running through the heart of it. We keep it beating. Seem to me that make me more American than any of you."

Misha Green, who co-created Underground with fellow Heroes alum Joe Pokaski, said that they asked Hodge and co-star Alano Miller for insight while writing that monologue. What would they, as black men in America, want to say?

"We really wanted to give voice to what Noah or the Noahs of the past had been feeling at that time and how that connects to what people are feeling today," Green said.

America's discussions about race have also surfaced in television shows with more contemporary settings. Fox's upcoming limited series Shots Fired will revolve around the aftermath of a racially charged shooting. Scandal and Law and Order: SVU aired episodes depicting shootings of unarmed black men last year. The Carmichael Show devoted an episode to Black Lives Matter, and Blackish explored police brutality.

The connections to current events in the Roots remake and Underground are more subtle - but no less powerful.

Because the original Roots aired in an era with only three major commercial networks, it will be impossible for the remake, which will be simulcast on sister networks A&E and Lifetime, to have as big of an impact in terms of sheer numbers. But Roots is a forebear to the way we watch television now - primed for discourse, most of which happens on social media.

- Washington Post

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