The History Channel’s Roots, reviewed.

Roots Is As Necessary Today As It Was 40 Years Ago

Roots Is As Necessary Today As It Was 40 Years Ago

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May 27 2016 10:56 AM

Roots

The History Channel’s new version of the trailblazing ’70s miniseries is as necessary today as it was nearly 40 years ago.

roots review.
Malachi Kirby in the History Channel’s Roots.

History Channel

The miniseries Roots originally aired for eight consecutive nights in 1977 because executives at ABC were convinced the chronicle of an enslaved black American family would flop, and they wanted to burn through it as quickly as possible. Instead, Roots, based on Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, became an event and a phenomenon. An average of 80 million people watched the first seven episodes. A hundred million watched the finale. Kunta Kinte became a household name.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Beginning Monday night, the History Channel will air a new version of Roots. It speaks to the esteem in which the original is held that remaking it sounds like a bad idea: in its audience and its impact, Roots isn’t toppable. But an hour or so into the new version, as we see Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), so recently a free man, shackled in the hold of a slave ship, it becomes clear that the current version doesn’t have to best the original to be worthwhile. Yes, the new Roots, like any visual drama about slavery, exists in a sociocultural landscape that the original Roots helped create—which is to say, a world in which slavery has been turned into thoughtful, dramatic television at least once. But once is just a start. We are so far from having had enough painful, stirring treatments of slavery, the fundamental fact of American history, that Roots is nearly as necessary today as it was almost 40 years ago.

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Roots traces the history of Alex Haley’s ancestors. (Hayley is played in brief, needless narration by Laurence Fishburne.) It begins in Juffure, Gambia, in 1750, where Kunta Kinte is born, raised, trained to be a warrior, kidnapped, and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. The first hour of Roots takes place in Juffure and is a coming-of-age tale, one that illustrates the richness of Kunta’s life and culture before he was enslaved. It is the part of the new version that compares most unfavorably to the old. LeVar Burton was 20 when he played Kunta Kinte, but he looked even younger. His Kunta was energetically adolescent, full of irrepressible high spirits, warm and open. The horror of his kidnapping and enslavement was magnified by his youthfulness. Kirby, at 27, is older than Burton, as well as quieter and more watchful. He seems, from the start, like a man, which serves later segments of the story well but makes him less immediately captivating. (He’s also using a West African accent over his natural British one, and it’s distancing.)

Kunta arrives at the plantation in Virginia in 1767, where he is forced to take a new name and from which he tries to escape multiple times before slave-catchers chop off half his foot. He is nursed back to health by Belle, whom he marries. They have a daughter, Kizzy, (played by Emyri Crutchfield as a teenager and Anika Noni Rose as an adult), who is sold away from her parents when she is 16, after trying to help another slave escape. She is repeatedly raped by her new master, Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who fathers her only child, George. George grows up be an expert cockfighter known as Chicken George. He marries and has seven children before he is sold to a man in England to settle Lea’s debt. He spends 20 years across the ocean before returning to Lea’s farm as a free man to find his family. He eventually locates his wife and four of his remaining children in North Carolina on the eve of the Civil War. The series ends soon after the war, as Haley’s ancestors make their way to Tennessee to start a new life as free people in a world that we, with the hindsight of history, know will try to curb that freedom any way it can.

What you can perhaps tell from this radically synopsized plot outline is how secondary white characters are to it. In the original, ABC made sure that there were sympathetic white characters, so as not to alienate white audiences: Ed Asner, for example, played a slave trader with a small conscience.* In the new version, that character is gone. In its place is a failed uprising on a slave ship, led in part by Kunta. This is a story of black Americans, told from their perspective. All the scenes take place from the slaves’ point of view. There are no conversations presented between white people that the slaves don’t hear. There are no benevolent white people in Roots. Brad Pitt does not appear to lend a hand to freedom. The most well-meaning white person in the entire miniseries is strung up from a tree.

Slavery perverts the morality of every person who perpetuates it. The best that can be said about a slave owner is that he is not actively sadistic, just selectively so. Dr. William Waller (Matthew Goode) buys Kunta after he is lamed and seems relatively benign: He still hits Kunta upside the head for presumptuous talk and sells Kunta’s daughter. Kizzy is taught to read by the white girl with whom she grows up; the two are seemingly best friends until Kizzy tries to help another slave escape, and the white girl turns on her, feeling betrayed. Chicken George grows up to be the pet of his master and biological father, Tom, who trusts George above all others, yet he still chains George to a wagon during Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

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The only people from whom slaves can reliably expect kindness is one another. Roots tells the story of families broken and resourcefully re-made again and again. Kunta is ripped away from his parents and finds a new father figure in Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), who nurtures Kunta into creating a new family before being needlessly murdered by white men. Kizzy, like her father before her, is raised by both of her parents until she is suddenly sold away, never to see them again. (In the more sentimental original, she gets a chance to see Kunta’s grave. In the new version, once she is sold, neither she nor the audience ever hear of her parents again.) When Kizzy has a child, born of rape, she tries to drown him and herself, but stops, thinking of her father. George grows up to be an expert cockfighter and a showboat, a man with two fathers, the unprincipled, selfish, and reckless Tom, and Mingo, the taciturn slave who teaches George how to train birds and quietly, gruffly looks out for his safety.  

The very structure of Roots allows it to do something that stories about historical atrocities rarely do, which is to demonstrate just how rare it was to escape from those atrocities. Stories about slaves focus on those who made it to freedom, though most didn’t, just as stories about the Holocaust focus on Jews who lived through it, though most didn’t. But Roots’ protagonist is an entire family line. The central characters face enormous hardships, passing the baton of survival through history. Kunta tries to escape over and over again and never succeeds. A free man falls in love with Kizzy and wants to take her North, and she can't go, for fear of what Tom will do to her family. Chicken George gets his freedom only to have it revoked minutes later. Tom Lea promises he will free George’s family; instead, he sells them. Three of George’s children are sold again and disappear forever.

Kunta Kinte, who is from somewhere else, tells his wife after suffering yet another tragedy, “I hate this country. America will never be my home.” But his descendants do not have that choice. Roots reminds us, as the first did, that their long fight to be free is the most American story of all. 

*Correction, May 27, 2016: This piece originally misstated that Bob Hoskins played a slave trader in the original Roots. The part was played by Ed Asner. (Return.)