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.