You could remake “Roots” every 10 years or so and end up with a different context each time. The original 1977 miniseries, which spanned eight nights on ABC and captivated something like 130 million TV watchers, pushed hard outside our cultural comfort zones, reaching so deep that even I remember thoughtful classroom discussions of “Roots” in just about the whitest childhood a kid could have.
“Roots” was a powerful encounter for all who watched it or even sensed it in the air; it was a watershed moment for the ways our country, fresh off the Founding Fathers hoopla of the bicentennial, began to see the shame of slavery as a multi-generational narrative and how its effects were still very much with us, part of what Condoleezza Rice once smartly termed the nation’s “birth defect.”
If someone had remade “Roots” in the 1990s, its meaning might have ricocheted off the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson trial, gang violence and the rise of hip-hop. Wait another 10 years and a remake might have dovetailed with the dawning logic of paying reparations to Americans who trace their ancestry to slaves. Wait another few years, and the election of Barack Obama as president could have served as suitable background to the triumph and resilience contained in Alex Haley’s original book.
As it happens, almost 40 years have elapsed since the first “Roots,” and a lot has (and hasn’t) changed. Arriving with 21st-century production values and an urgent sense of momentum that trims a few hours off the total time investment, History’s four-night “reimagination” of “Roots” (airing Monday through Thursday) is an absorbing if only occasionally superior update.
This version is faithful to the original, with subtle and necessary shifts in context for contemporary audiences. This is a “Roots” that has studied the powerful effects of magical realism on fact-based fiction, especially in its yearning to represent a cultural authenticity. This is also a “Roots” that has clearly been to the movies, knowing full well it can hardly match the cruelties of “12 Years a Slave” or the cathartic fantasies of “Django Unchained.”
And, yes, this is a “Roots” that is to a certain degree “woke” (to borrow from current parlance) to recent setbacks in race relations. But don’t get too grand an idea about either its artistry or its potential impact; this is a TV miniseries, not “Lemonade.”
It all still begins in the 1750s in the West Africa town of Juffure, Gambia, with Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), whose ritual ascension to manhood is tragically interrupted when he is kidnapped by African traffickers, who deliver him to a slave-trading operation. Kunta and others are chained and crammed into a ship for an arduous Atlantic crossing — and it’s here where viewers will get a clear sense of how far this “Roots” is willing go in depicting man’s inhumanity to man.
Answer: far enough that a viewer will be disgusted and moved, but probably not so far as to cause sleepless nights for mature viewers. Violent acts (whippings, mutilations, rapes, murder) are an important component to this story; there is a scene in Part 1 in which Kunta’s plantation overseer flogs him until he utters the name given to him by his master: Toby. It was a powerful, heart-wrenching moment in 1977, when LeVar Burton played the role, but a side-by-side comparison of the scene then and now provides a somewhat startling example of how much we’ve turned up the volume on TV brutality — and proof that it can enhance the story.
That’s not to say that we do everything better nowadays. Wandering among clips and scenes from the original miniseries, I was struck by how much more time and talk it contained, which gave it a sense of patience and scope. In the original, conversations lasted minutes to allow for nuance and connection — as when Madge Sinclair, playing Kunta’s wife, Belle, described her first husband’s escape attempt and murder and the selling of her children. In the new version, Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi) barely gets time to mention it in passing.
By its second night, it becomes clear that the new “Roots” prizes momentum and efficiency above almost everything else — it’s a “Roots” for a world in a big hurry, the CliffsNotes version. The essential plot is intact: As Kunta/Toby, Kirby is a terrific leading man, ably carrying the first two nights with help from Corinealdi and Forest Whitaker as Fiddler (a role originated by Louis Gossett Jr.). After having his foot amputated for trying to escape, Kunta marries Belle and focuses on an Africa of the mind, imparting his culture and spirituality to his only child, a daughter named Kizzy, who is secretly taught to read. Caught forging a document, Kizzy is cruelly sold off and never sees her parents again.
Anika Noni Rose steps in on the third night as an adult Kizzy. Although it is true that this “Roots” is more attuned to its female characters (and the women all deliver fine performances each night), it could have gone further in this regard. Haley’s book, first presented as a work of research, prompted accusations of plagiarism (a lawsuit was settled out of court) and couldn’t withstand critical scrutiny from other historians. Now that the book has quietly tiptoed from nonfiction to fiction, nothing prevents this “Roots” from taking whatever liberties make sense — I would have been happy to see the epic become a feminist paean to Kizzy and her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters.
But that would mean no Chicken George, Kunta Kinte’s grandson, played in 1977 by Ben Vereen and here given a new spin by Regé-Jean Page. George’s father is Kizzy’s master, Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an arbitrarily mean plantation owner with a ruinous gambling addiction, who sees that young George has a talent for raising and training roosters to win cockfights. Hence the nickname, which plays on Chicken George’s knack for showmanship — the black man who performs for white favor.
It takes betrayal, a couple of decades in London, the Civil War and a daunting number of commercial breaks in Part 4 for Chicken George to rediscover his inner Kunta Kinte and pass the knowledge to his own children and grandchildren. The new “Roots” is correct in gauging that the saga can be told without supplying much sympathetic shading for its white characters. Rhys Meyers, curiously, gets far more screen time than his hammy take on Master Tom deserves, while others could use a touch more depth, such as Anna Paquin’s very brief turn as an abolitionist spy who poses as an antebellum lady.
“Roots” ends where its predecessor did, with the North’s victory over the South and suddenly freed slaves wondering what comes next. (It took a sequel miniseries, in 1979, to finish out the chapters in Haley’s book about the 19th and 20th centuries, which is also possible here.)
The new “Roots” fulfills its primary obligation to be a compelling saga, doing what it can to reflect what the past 40 years have meant to our collective understanding of black history. It also has less burden of social responsibility heaped upon it than its predecessor had. And, if someone were to remake “Roots” in another 10 or 20 or 30 years, I hope and expect it will continue to feel more creative, unpredictable and free.
Roots (nine hours over four nights) begins Monday at 9 p.m. on History. Continues through Thursday.