The new Roots is ambitious, fast, and furious. If only it had the patience to tell its story rather than sell it harder than an auction-block trader.
This mini-series begins with the voice of Laurence Fishburne, as Roots author Alex Haley, situating us in the world of young Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), his distant ancestor from Juffure, West Africa. Kunta is born in tense times. Thorny new elements surround the iconic scene where newborn Kunta's father holds him above his head, presenting him to the night sky — to Allah, in effect — as "the only thing greater than yourself." In the blockbuster 1977 adaptation, LeVar Burton's famously kind eyes and lovably gentle presence made Kunta's eventual abduction and enslavement effortlessly heartbreaking. Kirby, too, has kind eyes, but they are set in the chiseled face of a warrior. The new Roots takes great pains to flesh out a more complex, less idyllic Juffure society than the one in the '77 version, and its Kunta is made to match. Juffure is a bustling world of tribal politics, commerce (with slave trading as both the spoils of war and a way for the unscrupulous to turn a fast buck), Islam, and education (Kunta dreams of leaving his village to study at university). Kunta looks like the product of his times: noble and reasoned, but ready for a fight if need be.
Trained hard by Mandinka warriors, Kunta is shaping up to be the reflection of his equally tough, proud father, who wants him to stay in the village to carry on Mandinka traditions. Kunta wants only to run off with Jinna (Simona Brown), a sweet girl who was intended for another young man. The rivalry between suitors sets off a chain of events that leads to tragedy. Since his rival's family is involved in the slave trade, capturing and selling Kunta and Jinna to English slavers becomes a quick and dirty way to even the score.
What Kunta, Jinna, and dozens of others endure on the slave ship is a hell that American audiences have become reacquainted with recently through Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. In that film, a riverboat loaded down with slaves traveling within the continental U.S. evoked the larger horror of the transatlantic slave trade. In Roots, we get the genuine article — or at least what its makers hope will overwhelm us as such. There's rape, torture, severed heads on pikes, stabbings, and death by point-blank cannon fire. Throughout, Kunta and his fellow captives seize every opportunity to resist. That resistance comes at a bloody cost.
By this point, the action has been almost non-stop. It began with Kunta's father defending innocents against local slavers, then proceeded through Kunta's running, horseback-riding, and spear-throwing coming of age. (We are also treated to a bracing narrative fake out: What initially looks like Kunta's fated abduction by slavers is actually his initiation into the warrior camp.) Even the lulls between action set pieces are edited as if a fire were raging just out of frame. Director Phillip Noyce is a veteran journeyman, who started out in the Australian New Wave before a '90s run as a Hollywood genre craftsman (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector). He then returned to Australia to make Rabbit-Proof Fence, the film that probably best qualified him to take on Roots. That tale of "half-caste" Aborigine children, who were torn from their mothers by racist Australian authorities, had a patient way of settling into its story that this episode lacks.
The new Roots devotes a lot of time relating how the Kinte clan is a strong, proud, intelligent line of fighters, connected across time and the seas by a prevailing spirit of resistance. These are beautiful sentiments, but the mechanical rhythms, hectic pace, and shrill pitch of storytelling render them hollow. In that sense, neo-Roots is state-of-the-art storytelling in 2016 — a procession of moments and plot information flung our way in the hope of overwhelming us. As with so many modern "epics," the effect is more exhausting than enveloping.
After the failed slave ship insurrection (a departure from Haley's book and the '77 miniseries), the episode follows the classic Haley story line faithfully enough, just fleshing it out with finer historical detail and thunderous flashbacks meant to preserve a sense of continuity. Kunta settles uncomfortably into the Waller plantation, where he befriends Fiddler (Forest Whitaker, inheriting the devastating Louis Gossett Jr. role), the aging house slave most trusted by John Waller (James Purefoy) and his wife, Elizabeth (Katie McGuinness).
Ultimately, Kunta will be broken, forced to renounce his true name and adopt the one Mrs. Waller fancies, Toby, but this time around it takes a lot more doing. Kunta doesn't even make the slightest pretense of fearing his masters — he only fears the guns in their hands — which makes him a problem for Fiddler and a mortal enemy of the plantation overseer, Connelly (Tony Curran). Fiddler helps Kunta escape, as much to get himself out of the hot seat as to savor the idea of someone actually getting a taste of liberty. By the time Connelly captures Kunta and a slave patroller drags him back to the Waller estate, his presence has torn at the seams of many barely maintained façades, from Fiddler's jovial politicking to Master Waller's seemingly harmonious relationship with his wife and more prosperous brother, William (Matthew Goode). (A lovely ancestral song that weaves throughout the mini-series, passed down from Kunta's father to Kunta and beyond, here finds its way into Fiddler's string repertoire, stirring up … something between Mrs. Waller and her brother-in-law.)
Kunta's beating and breaking was the startling moment that seized 140 million American viewers in 1977. It was a starkly theatrical confession of America's capital crime. Between it and the new version stand 39 years of increasingly hyperrealistic treatments of violence in pop culture, right on up to the savage whipping of slave girl Patsey in 2014's 12 Years a Slave. Kunta's beating shares McQueen's emphasis on how the body breaks down during a whipping. In other words, it misses the point: With every lash of whip and drop of blood, the new Roots insists that this is what it takes to get you to feel the horror, the heartbreak of American slavery, devoting an agonizing stretch of screentime that it somehow couldn't afford to lavish on scenes of Kunta's life prior to abduction, or in the stray everyday moments between brutalities, both of which are numerous but fleeting, rendered in bright, generic, and unimaginative tones. Unlike Patsey, a classically tragic figure from history whose fate is unknown, Kunta is a legend of resilience. Yet they are both defined by the beatings they can take, rather than imagined as vast and finely wrought humans for whom we might develop concern beyond awe or pity.
The actors in this mini-series are blameless, and they are the reason to keep watching. Although Kirby's investment in the character of Kunta can't overcome the show's programmatic delivery, it does make him interesting to watch. He is a bright new star. Forest Whitaker's Fiddler is a portrait in black survival and self-loathing, creating moments of queasy tension between him and his masters. The latter, played by a raft of solid British actors, generally resist the tendency to play Dastardly Southern Racist tropes, instead going for cold and clueless self-absorption: In one scene, Mrs. Waller's heartbreak and anger when Fiddler fails to immediately relay an order to Kunta illustrates a victim mentality peculiar to the absurdly privileged.
Tony Curran's Connelly immediately enters the pantheon of white racist characters, so passionate and determined at his job of breaking slaves that he almost seems heroic, like an especially demanding football coach who just wants to win. (Here, "win" generally means submit or die.) He doesn't want to whip Toby/Kunta any longer than necessary and takes no joy in tracking down runaway plantation "property." "If only these niggers would accept their lower primate status…" his perpetual grimace seems to say.
I'm told that this Roots plays its talented performers so cheap and runs so artificially fast through its rich source material because audiences would not sit still for something less tweetable from moment to moment; that an advertiser-dependent cable network like the History Channel can't roll the dice on more visionary, exploratory storytelling of the HBO variety. This makes a certain kind of sense in the year of a skin-deep Nina Simone movie and a Miles Davis biopic rewritten to emphasize a white character who'd improve its "overseas" appeal. Though it's a far cry from Kunta and Fiddler's plight, I suppose we also must come to terms with a reality that doesn't seem apt to change anytime soon.