In January ‘77, I was old enough to be allowed to watch grown-up TV with my sister, brother, and parents. During our viewings, I would either sit in Mama’s lap, or on the floor, my back resting against her legs because it was comfortable, and because she could easily clasp her hand over my eyes if something was too intense for me to see. On one of those nights, we were all engrossed watching a man named Kunta Kinte try to escape slavery again and again. Suddenly, in one scene, we saw an ax heading toward Kunta’s foot. I turned away from the screen and buried my face in Mama’s legs and cried. Everybody cried.
Such was my experience watching Roots for the first time. Adapted from the Alex Haley book of the same name, the miniseries traced the story of the writer’s ancestors over multiple generations, starting with Kunta Kinte, a young African man sold into slavery. Boasting a cast filled with TV stars and cultural icons (including O.J. Simpson and Maya Angelou), Roots went on to become the most-watched miniseries of all time. But in the almost 40 years since Roots first aired, its cultural impact is easy to forget, especially as it’s become an easy relic for a cable network to trot out every year for Black History Month.
In an age of remakes and reboots, it’s no surprise that A&E announced that it was “reimagining” the epic drama in an effort to appeal to a new generation of viewers. The four-part miniseries, which begins airing Monday, is executive produced by Mark Wolper, whose father David Wolper helped create the original Roots with Haley. While it may be easy to question the worth of a remake given the original’s masterpiece status, A&E’s Roots has the kind of high production values that can better translate the visual power of its predecessor to younger audiences. But more importantly, the new series brings new light to the misperception that popular culture has done a good job telling stories about slavery and black history in the decades since Roots first gripped the U.S.
To date, America’s most defining chapter, slavery—with all of its complexity, contradictions, and endless fictional and true narrative possibilities—has been under-treated by Hollywood. The recent visibility of films such as the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, Nate Parker’s record-breaking Birth of a Nation, the intriguing, savvy WGN series Underground, and Django Unchained, Tarantino’s fantastical slave era-cowboy hero flick—might make it appear otherwise. (BET’s unusual but laudable 2015 effort, The Book of Negroes miniseries, failed to widely engage American viewers.)
A&E’s Roots confronts this distorted but popular belief that the subject of slavery has not only been covered, but done well, done enough, or even done too much. There continues to be a deep-seated American cultural discomfort with slavery, and neither the financial success of Birth of a Nation at Sundance nor the critical success of Twelve Years a Slave and Underground has yet led to a sustained national discussion and interrogation of this discomfort.
Many black consumers, particularly the younger viewers the Roots makers want to attract, believe that Hollywood is invested in using narratives of slavery and servitude to represent the African American experience. Further, they argue that it’s largely white and non-African American directors, producers, and actors who are most empowered to create these stories. In every class, public lecture, or post-screening Q&A that I’ve participated in over the last five years (and there have been many), a young viewer will rise, and to the nods and applause of a great many of his or her peers, will demand to know why the only movies that keep being made about African Americans and endorsed by Hollywood are ones about black slaves or servants.
It’s true that from its inception Hollywood has created and perpetuated imagery that kept black Americans in their legally and socially sanctioned places in films like Gone With the Wind and Imitation of Life, and TV shows like Beulah and The Big Valley. But it’s false that Hollywood has ever developed a significant and ongoing interest in works that accurately depict the nature of slavery, or that are driven by the perspectives of the enslaved.
Sankofa, Haile Gerima’s 1993 film, is one unfortunately little-known example of a film that tried to do just that; 12 Years a Slave is another. Beloved, Oprah Winfrey’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s seminal 1987 book, while not wholly successful, at least tried to dramatize the traumatic spiritual impact of slavery from the perspective of a formerly enslaved black women. But so many of the movies ostensibly about slavery—Lincoln, Amistad, Glory—don’t explore the brutal realities of slave life and its impact on the bodies and the psyches of the enslaved, nor are their voices or their point of view the dominant lens through which the story is told.
The other problem that A&E’s Roots brings to the fore is the way older generations have failed to properly justify the importance of watching big historical dramas like Selma to their children and grandchildren. Many viewers who watched and were affected by the original Roots, like my family was, end up trying to sell the value of sweeping biopics with a simple, “You need to know this. It’s important to know your history.” But often, younger viewers, like my students, push back, earnestly asking, What is the use of it though? What am I supposed to go out and do with it? The Roots remake offers an ideal chance for both sides to revisit the conversation, and for grownups to make a stronger case for learning about difficult historical realities from watching and evaluating major productions like this one, and how transformative consciousness and knowledge can possibly develop from an encounter with it.
Roots stands on sacred ground as the most in-depth, widely thought-provoking, and accomplished dramatic work of its kind. As such, the remake presents an opportunity to further address the ongoing lack of diversity behind the screen in Hollywood. The actor LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in the original Roots, is among the producers, as are several women; Will Packer is an executive producer alongside Wolper and Marc Toberoff. Black historians and experts served to varying degrees as researchers or consultants. The prolific costume designer Ruth Carter—who was nominated for an Academy Award for her work on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X—led a team through the vast task of creating a striking canvas of colors and looks throughout the series’ changing locales. Roots has two black male directors (Mario Van Peebles and Thomas Carter) and a black woman (Alison McDonald) has a writing credit on one episode, but sadly it doesn't have a single black female on the directing team, despite the fact that Julie Dash, Ava Duvernay, Kasi Lemmons, and Dee Rees are all examples of women with impressive directorial resumes.
Forty years after the U.S. first heard the story of Kunta Kinte, whose name became Toby on American soil as he fought to maintain his humanity, it’s preparing to hear it again, this time in the age of Black Lives Matter. The significance of the new series goes beyond its impressive cast, which boasts Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne, James Purefoy, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Forest Whitaker, and Anika Noni Rose. It’s a story about extreme pain and beautiful resistance and triumph, all disturbingly blended together—the kind that dispels any false notion that great slavery narratives are the norm in American culture today. Roots, both then and now, is a story of one family and of a diverse people pounded into stratified difference, a tale about power, greed, and global economics, as well as moral and ideological failure. I did not know enough or have words big enough to think about the myriad implications of Roots back in 1977, but I felt it. I felt it and never forgot it.
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