Roots’ Cast and Creators on Slavery Narratives, Brutality on TV, and Nina Simone

Erica Tazel, Malachi Kirby, Regé-Jean Page Photo: Cait Oppermann

The 2016 Emmy race has begun, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until voting closes on June 27.

In today’s too-much-TV universe, it’s almost impossible to fathom what Roots achieved when it aired in 1977. The ABC mini-series, based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, saw half the U.S. population (about 135 million people) tune in live to watch the epic series about a young Mandinka tribesman, Kunta Kinte (played by a then-19-year-old LeVar Burton), who is kidnapped by slavers and taken to America, and his family’s long struggle for freedom.

Forty years later, A&E Networks will simulcast its $50 million, four-part reboot of Roots on History Channel, A&E, and Lifetime beginning Monday, May 30, in an attempt to re-create that rarest of modern phenomena: event family television. Anchored once again by an unknown actor playing Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), this Roots is a faithful re-creation of the original, but with a necessary edge that producer Will Packer says is crucial for an audience that’s “seen everything by now.”

Vulture sat down with producers Mark Wolper — whose father, David L. Wolper, produced the original Roots — and Packer (Straight Outta Compton), and cast members Kirby, Regé-Jean Page (who plays Kunta Kinte’s son, Chicken George), and Erica Tazel (Chicken George’s wife Matilda), to discuss the urgency of revisiting this story, how they were “screwed” when it came to casting, and why the Nina Simone biopic controversy and Roots are closely related.

The reboot comes in a year with a number of other notable projects about slavery, including Underground on WGN, and Fox Searchlight’s forthcoming Oscar contender, The Birth of a Nation. How is your retelling of Roots distinct among these narratives? And why tell this particular story again now?

Will Packer: Those other projects, and 12 Years a Slave as well, largely tell the stories of people who were slaves. We tell the story from the very beginning of one family, all the way through their emancipation and into the 1960s. I think that’s a critical difference.  

Mark Wolper: By the way, I wasn’t sure there was any right time to reboot a project that was so monumental for the TV business and for its social ramifications, not to mention a project that my own father had produced. It was a triple whammy in that respect for me. People had been saying for years, “Let’s do Roots again. Can we do Roots again?” And my answer was always, “No.” But it was when I sat my 16-year-old son down to watch it and he said, “I understand why Roots is so important, but it’s kind of like your music — it doesn’t speak to me” that realized I had to overcome my fears. There is an entire generation of young people that needs to hear and see this story. The problems we have with race in America right now are enormous, but we can’t fix the future or understand the present unless we understand where we all came from.

Malachi, Regé-Jean, and Erica — none of you had even been born yet when the first Roots aired. What has the story meant to each of you of personally?

Malachi Kirby: When I was a kid growing up in England, I didn’t necessarily know the series well, but I knew the name Kunta Kinte and what it meant. Then about four years ago, my mom gave me the box set. She said, “I really, really want you to watch this.” After about a year, I finally took it out of the box and pretty much went through the whole thing in one day. The story still speaks volumes. There are many people still ashamed of their roots because of the negative connotations that come with being an “African.” That sentiment exists many places around the world — in England, in the U.S., everywhere.

Regé-Jean Page: Contrary to what many people think, our history did not start with slavery. So this project for me is very much about about filling in a history that has been mistold, or in some cases, even erased. It’s about upgrading a lot of misinformation that we’ve been told for generations. And that’s a task that doesn’t ever really end.

Erica Tazel: Something that occurred halfway through filming for me is that there is an unborn child somewhere who will see this version Roots and feel the same way we did. They will grapple with the same questions of identity, placement, cultural customs, and familial traditions, whatever it is that’s passed down — whether you’re black, Jewish, Asian, Latino. It’s deeply moving to be a part of a vehicle that can potentially facilitate [that process].

Mark, how difficult was it to find your key cast members, especially someone to play Kunta Kinte, who is arguably one of the most iconic television characters in history?

Wolper: We pretty much knew we were screwed. [Laughs.]

Kirby: And you had two Kunta Kintes to cast in our show.

Wolper: Yes. We knew that we had a huge journey ahead of us. We looked at roughly 6,500 people on four different continents across six months. The interesting thing is we saw both of you guys [gesturing to Kirby and Page] in the first week of auditions. With Malachi particularly, we were like, “You are fantastic, but there’s no way we could have found our Kunta Kinte that quickly.” So we went on six more months, and it still ended up being you!

Page: I signed on first and I remember the casting board had all these names, but no other photos and I was like, ‘Am I like Eddie Murphy in this thing or what?’ [Laughs.]

Wolper: Yes, you were the first one. By the way, there are 460 total cast members in this show.

The most grueling sequence in the new Roots is the whipping scene of Kunta Kinte, who is punished for refusing to say his slave name, Toby, out loud. The scene is longer, more violent, and gory than that of the original mini-series. Why?

: Sensitivities, or lack of, have changed since 1977. Something that had an impact to viewers then just doesn’t have the same effect today. You have to be as real as possible when making content for people who have seen everything by now. We would be remiss if we didn’t go in and treat this with absolutely the utmost respect and care, but also make it as a real and raw as possible.

Wolper: Will and I had a lot of conversations at the beginning about how far we were going to go into the brutality of those moments. I would rather someone say to me, “I couldn’t watch that, it was too painful,” than “You didn’t do that as authentically as you could have.”

One of many discussions that grew out of this year’s Oscar diversity controversy was the idea that some black performers are often more pressured to play heavy dramatic roles, like those in Roots; roles that carry dramatic, historical significance for people of color. For the actors, how have you experienced this in your own careers?

: We’ve seen Jane Austen-type stories depicted 100 times on film. But turn the camera 90 degrees to the left and you’ll find us. The good news is, we’re finally getting better at telling these stories, and that makes it easier to say yes to these parts.

Tazel: I always hope to be a part of anything that has cultural significance, but mostly I just want to play a compelling character. I want to be challenged by the writing. I want to be on set with people who scare me and push me. So, when something like this comes along, there is that moment where you take a deep breath and say, “I feel my feet firmly on the shoulders of all the people who came before me,” and it’s hard to say no.

Page: We also have more information now; we have better, more three-dimensional characters. I personally want to help us all move beyond the two-dimensional “Noble Suffering Historical Black Character.” There is still more respect that must be paid to those people.

Kirby: Especially considering that last year, slaves became newly labeled as “migrants” in some Texas textbooks.

Packer: I want to build on this is a bit. Because of Straight Outta Compton, I was involved in all a lot of those Oscar discussions. The most important thing is that “awards” need to be reflective of the opportunities that exist for talent in the industry, and the truth is that there simply weren’t enough roles for any people of color to have the chance to be nominated. It’s not like they have the luxury to be able to ask themselves, “Okay, do I want to be the Marvel movie, or do I want to be in Roots?”

Tazel: Yes. The operative word in all of this is “opportunity.” 

This particular theme hit fever pitch again more recently with the controversy surrounding actress Zoe Saldana playing singer Nina Simone in the biopic Nina. It was a casting choice that infuriated many, as Saldana has skin that is much lighter that Simone’s, therefore requiring her to wear prosthetics. What were your thoughts on this?

Page: This isn’t a direct answer to this question, but I think a lot of the problems in our industry stem from the fact that the types of people being represented onscreen aren’t being heard from the beginning; they’re not in the boardroom to offer their opinions.

You mean starting with the casting process?

Page: Yes. Certain people probably would’ve probably seen the Nina Simone controversy coming. 

Packer: This is a very deep issue and it primarily affects African-American women in Hollywood. I remember Judd Apatow tweeted something like, “Apparently in Hollywood you can only play what you are.” His intent was to support Zoe, but there were so many black women who felt, “You have no idea why we’re even upset about this.” Nina Simone was a beacon for dark skin, coarse hair, a wide African nose. She epitomized that and said, “This is beautiful.” 

: A lot of the backlash wasn’t necessarily directly towards Zoe. It was because Nina carried the torch for non-classically beautiful black women. I personally know many actresses who could have been cast in that role who wouldn’t have had to undergo any physical transformation. That’s why it hurt so much, I think.

Packer: I’m glad you asked this question because it’s closely related to all the themes we explore in Roots. Black youth need to understand whom they descend from. Why? It helps them shape their entire perspective on the struggles they face today — whether that’s systemic racism or police brutality or accepting the way they look. Collectively, as black people, we need to create and shape our own perspective by using our history, through knowing that there were brave African warriors like Kunta Kinte who never, ever relented.

Wolper: I remember Alex Haley used to talk a lot about how the slave experience had been previously described in high-school textbooks in maybe two paragraphs, but after Roots came out, it went up to two pages. I’m hoping after this one, maybe we will get up to six pages.