The New Roots Is More Scathing and Pulls Fewer Punches

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Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in Roots. Photo: Steve Dietl/Courtesy of A&E

“They can put the chains on your body. Never let them put the chains on your mind.”

The slave Kunta Kinte (Malchi Kirby) says that to his daughter Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose) in Roots, which premieres at 9pm ET on Memorial Day. It reappears in different forms throughout this four-part, eight-hour mini-series, a remake of the 1977 blockbuster adaptation of Alex Haley’s best seller about the African-American experience during and after slavery. Soon enough, you realize that it’s not merely a recurring bit of dialogue but a defining sentiment. This Roots strives to maintain some creative continuity with the original — it’s presented by the Wolper Organization, the production company founded by David L. Wolper, a producer of the first mini-series, and LeVar Burton, the first Kunta Kinte, serves as an executive producer — but for the most part it’s quite different in style, temperament, and especially emphasis. And it should be, because the cultural context has changed radically in the last 39 years.

The original was a surprise hit for the perennially lagging broadcast network ABC, which was desperate enough to spend $6.6 million, a lavish sum at the time; TV executives got cold feet when they saw the finished product, deemed it uncommercial, and burned off all the episodes on consecutive nights in January, traditionally one of the weakest months for TV viewership. But it caught fire anyway, becoming one of the top-rated original dramatic productions to ever air in the U.S. Its finale was seen by over 100 million people, roughly half the country, maybe because, unbeknown to everyone involved, its timing was impeccable. Airing roughly a decade after major developments in the civil-rights movement, during a period of national malaise, it had a conciliatory sensibility; it was what online content producers would now call “an explainer.” Written, produced, and directed almost entirely by white men, it was a visually crude but thoughtfully acted and altogether powerful tale whose most harrowing moments (Kunta’s mutilation as punishment for trying to escape; Kizzy’s separation from her boyfriend) had the wrenching power of a silent melodrama. It exposed white viewers to a history that many of them had known only in the abstract and validated the experience of black viewers who were thrilled to see so many accomplished African-American performers enacting a tale of the nation’s original sin, under viewing conditions too big to ignore.

The new Roots is more passionate, more sweeping, considerably angrier, and more disgusted by the physical and moral atrocities it depicts. The violence is more graphic: The blood flows freely, and there are horror-film close-ups of acts that were shunted offscreen in the 1977 version; this might have been unbearable if the screenwriters (including the African-American writer Charles Murray) and the directors (two white, two black: Phillip Noyce and Bruce Beresford; Mario Van Peebles and Thomas Carter) didn’t make a point of centering the black experience, stressing the notion that Kunta and his descendants are displaced warriors whose pride is grounded in the survival instinct and making the entire story unfold within the context of displacement from Africa to North America. The first Roots was framed rather pointedly as an American story, as if to reassure white viewers that it would be involving for them, too; prominent white actors, many known for playing lovable TV characters, were cast in supporting roles as slave owners, driving home the idea that institutionalized racism was enacted not just by leering sadists but by people who thought of themselves as kindhearted. The remake replicates some of the story’s most chilling moments of hypocrisy and double-dealing by white characters, including the scene where Missy Anne (G Hannelius), a slave owner’s daughter, berates her supposed friend Kizzy, whom Missy taught to read and write, for forging a travel pass to help her illiterate boyfriend, Noah, escape.

But the tone is less empathetic, often scathingly unforgiving of the masters’ moral bankruptcy, and this, too, is as it should be. The violent abolitionist Nat Turner is an offscreen presence in this Roots, and by the time he enters the story, we’ve seen so much racist viciousness that reports of his men butchering the wives and children of slave owners seem entirely justified. Four decades after the original mini-series became a go-to punch line on sitcoms that poked fun at white liberals who believed they were “down” (“I’m hip to the black experience, brother … I saw Roots!”), there are too many broken promises, too many additional outrages, too much evidence that the political and psychological legacy of slavery persists, for a remake of Roots to pull punches. We’re past the point where big-tent persuasion would be anything but a nostalgia act. Laurence Fishburne’s voice-over performance as Alex Haley offers a few preemptive strikes against canned racist talking points—as when it informs us, over images of black Africans keeping other Africans in bondage, that many other cultures, including the Hebrews and the Romans, had slaves too. Black voices hold the floor from start to finish.

To this end, the storytelling is more subjective, aggressively interior at times. The first episode, charting Kunta’s upbringing as a Mandinka tribesman and his separation from his family, is the strongest of the lot because it focuses on Kirby’s astonishing Kunta (one of the great strong-silent performances of recent times) and uses filmmaking devices, such as direct address of the camera by other characters, to put us inside his head. Whether Kunta is enjoying a moment of relative peace or enduring horrendous suffering, flashback memories and callback bits of voice-over keep intruding on his consciousness, putting across the idea of family stories and handed-down lessons not just as evidence of cultural values and as formative moments that shape character but as present-tense events, reminders that our parents and grandparents remain alive in our memories.

This Roots isn’t as altogether strongly acted as the 1977 version — though there are still plenty of standouts, including Rose as the good-hearted and tragically cursed Kizzy, Forest Whitaker as the unexpectedly radicalized house slave Fiddler, Rége-Jean Page as the motormouthed cockfighting master and trickster hero Chicken George, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the resentful white farmer Tom Lea. But the unmistakable spiritual dimension, an aspect lacking in the original, compensates, and it comes mainly from the writing and direction. Subjective storytelling devices and references to family mythology and lore recur in other chapters, starting with the opening sequence of Kunta’s father riding into the village to witness his son’s birth and passing a griot telling stories to an audience, and culminating in a scene where Kizzy “remembers” images of the African grandfather she never met. The iconic image of Baby Kunta being held aloft by his father repeats again in a future episode, linking the experiences of different generations bonded by their indomitable warrior spirit. 

*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.