The Roots remake starring Malachi Kirby and Lashana Lynch has already aired in America, and was met with heartfelt approval. This 2016 reboot of Alex Haley’s 1976 novel comes 40 years after the original 1977 adaptation, which took the western world by storm. It broke audience records which still maintains it amongst the top performing miniseries of all time. It earned multiple Emmy and Golden Globe wins and even more nominations.
Serious conversations about whether to tackle it at all were had. Somewhat timely was the surfacing of new and more horrific historical facts in the intervening years, which inspired writers to modify the plot. Mark Wolper, son of the original producer David, felt that millennials like his own son needed to be familiar with this aspect of American history and might respond to an action-adventure, the story of a hero rising and the strength of family. With LeVar Burton – the young Kunta Kinte from the original series, on board as co-executive producer, this retelling features love stories, violent gun-battles, graphic scenes of abuse, which are, at times, difficult to watch. The editing helps, with quick and suspense-building cuts, which some feel may interfere with the flow.
The much-anticipated re-boot was simulcast on May 30th 2016 on History, A&E, and Lifetime channels – eight hours of African-American history over four consecutive night in the U.S.
Anika Noni Rose, who takes on one of the other memorable characters – Kizzy, said, “This is not pop culture; this is our heritage as Americans.”
Our own Malachi Kirby (Jonah and the Whale, Gone Too Far, Black Mirror) plays the uber-iconic Kunta Kinte – the Mandinka warrior sold into slavery from the Gambia, and the ancestor of the eventual writer of his family saga, Alex Haley (Laurence Fishburne). Kirby’s young warrior is a compelling presence – composed and self-possessed, yet with a tightly wound athleticism – a man perpetually on the lookout for the opportunity to run. He doesn’t give up, despite the horrific consequences, not until family again grounds him.
This re-telling presents each generation, from the 18th to the 20th century with varying pace. No expense has been spared in recreating historical detail, as filming took place in South Africa and Louisiana. The entire cast have admitted to the emotions toll filming took, which should prepare the prospective audience. Kirby likened being on-set to being closer to a reenactment, especially during the 2 weeks filming on a full-scale slave ship, with 200 people squeezed into the slave hold, chained and sweating, smeared with artificial vomit and excrement with not much oxygen or light.
Nigerian born Babatunde Olusanmokun’s (Gotham, Mother of George), Omoro impresses as Kinte’s father, the source of his home life and culture, in which he is strongly grounded and from which his pride and strength arise. As director of episode 1, Philip Noyce handles the scenic detail to complement the nuanced performances and evoke an atmospheric home land. Derek Luke’s Silla Ba Dibba, is the tough ‘drill instructor’ who ensures that his warriors have the skills they need to survive, from whom Kinte learns resistance to the atrocities of enslavement.
Thus, the tone is set for the theme which binds each generation. Roots explores the the means by which a human soul can resist inhumanity – denied the most basic rights of an intact innocence or childhood; the right to walk upright and look where you will; the right to say ‘no’; the right to love; the right to the bosom of family; the right to rest. The ever-awesome Anika Noni Rose (Half of a Yellow Sun, Power, Princess and the Frog) couldn’t have been more perfectly cast as Kizzy, originally and iconically played by Leslie Uggams, whose unyielding remembrance of her ancestors fuels her implacable inner resistance. Her resonant performance is matched by Emayatzy Corinealdi’s Belle, Forest Whitaker’s Fiddler, Erica Tazel’s Matilda and even Regé-Jean Page’s Chicken George, who has Ben Vereen’s original portrayal to contend with. Additional cast include Jonathan Rhys Meyers, James Purefoy, Anna Paquin and Matthew Goode – all likeable skilful actors in their own right. Even trap-rapper turned political social commentator T.I. shows up in this.
Whilst the greater distractions from hundreds of visual platforms may hinder this version from attracting the audience numbers of the original (140m), my hopes are high that it will do well. Because, here again is a TV series we know is about us, representing what happened to our ancestors all over the Americas, including the Caribbean. The focus is on African men and women who, despite unspeakable physical and psychological torture, managed to hold on to just a little of what they were being violently denied, lived through it and created a legacy that many embraced worldwide 40 years ago, and might do so again.
This is different to 12 Years a Slave, different to Django Unchained, different to Selma, different to everything, because Roots offers an antidote to perhaps the cruellest denial of the Diaspora – that of a cultural identity, a direct connection to a proud history unmolested and uninterrupted by Colonialism.
That said, it’s not perfect. Each 2 hour episode was directed by a different man – Philip Noyce and Bruce Beresford are white – for what it’s worth. Thomas Carter and Mario Van Peebles are African-American; some performances are best described as uneven.
Roots the new series will air on BBC 4 tonight at 9pm. The following three parts will air on the channel Wednesdays at 9pm over the next three weeks.