It is almost impossible to understate the significance of Roots. Prior to the mini-series there had never been any televised dramatic telling of the story of chattel slavery in the U.S. Roots is a classic and cultural touchstone that is mentioned on every countdown piece about media, culture, and/or television--and with good reason. Every episode of roots is in the Nielsen’s top 100 and the series was watched more than half the U.S. population. Find anyone who was breathing in 1977 and they can tell you how it made them feel to see so much of our ugly history laid bare.
Being born in 1983, I missed the initial wave, but thankfully I was born to parents who had enough forethought to record the series on VHS. As a Black American, Roots is in the ether, is a tradition, part of my cultural make up; it is, as the hosts of Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period Podcast would call it, “Black People Homework”. So, to hear of remake of this legendary, extremely successful, expertly casted, touchstone television mini-series, made by the History Channel (with which I have had my own disappointments with since it began having more “reality” shows, allowing aliens to take responsibility for POC historical events/monuments, and that whole Bible show fiasco), my response was not warm, accepting nor positive. Although learning LeVar Burton is one the executive producers gave me a small bit of hope.
This interpretation of Roots focuses much more on the lives of enslaved women than the previous. We learn the dangers the face they from childhood on, from slave masters and slave mistresses. They are allowed to be vulnerable, strong, loved, and loveable. However, considering the book the series is based on, outside of Kizzy, the women of Roots don’t get quite as much attention as the men. This isn’t something I blame the series for, but considering how powerful the narriative is in the popular consciosness (and the lack of general education), I wish there were more. Many Black people I know are simply tired of the slave narriative. It hurts to see your people so mistreated and with Underground, 12 Years A Slave, and others, many feel we’ve had enough. I understand this, but I disagree; I think we need more variance in the slave narritives that are told. (In short; I want my Harriet Tubman series, damnit.)
I must admit, I was highly skeptical.
The first episode of the saga carries so much. It has to convince you that this series is a continuation in the legacy, not something that seeks to supplant. We begin in 1750 in the port city of Juffure, in the river region of The Gambia in West Africa, Omoro Kinte and his wife, Binta, have their first child, a son named Kunta. We spend the first half hour in Jufureh, seeing Kunta grow into a young man with hopes for love and an ambition to become a warrior. We’re privy to traditional songs, dances, food, dress, & customs. We see group frictions between the Kintes and Koros; the later of which trade people to be enslaved for guns. We see family friction as Kunta decides he wants to attend university in Timbuktu, but his parents want him close to home. I struggle to think of any other period piece focused on Africans so completely. I desperately wanted to stay in that world and explore. Like Kunta, I wanted to see Timbuktu, but this is Roots and we know where Kunta is really going.
After being kidnapped and captured by the Koros, Kunta is sold to British slave traders in 1767 and is shipped through the brutal Middle Passage to America. Conditions are horrific on the slave ship. It is the nightmare you’ve heard about, all the ones you could’ve expected, and all the ones they were too afraid to tell you. The struggle to remain sane and to keep your spirit from being irreparably shattered brought tears to my eyes. You cannot be prepared for the level of hate, disregard, mental and physical abuse visited on the captors. Had I been alone during the screening of this episode I would have wailed out loud. Kunta and his fellow captures lead an uprising on board, but it isn’t successful, he is sold to a Virginia planter named John Waller, whose wife gives him the slave name Toby. Kunta strongly resists his new name and enslavement. He learns that the state of being enslaved is something learned as it is brutally beat into him during the infamous whipping scene. Kunta comes to rely on Fiddler (portrayed by the amazing, Forest Whitaker), a slave who grew up on the plantation and a sophisticated musician who has been assigned to train him.
The utter misery and compounded abuses designed to stifle any feeling of the right to their own humanity is suffocating. Trigger Warning for literally every misery that could be visited on a person. I'm not a particularly sensitive viewer and I have studied narratives of enslaved people, however, viewing this put me in distress. It is a very hard watch, as it is designed to be. However, at the same time it is nearly impossible to turn away. Malachi Kirby as Kunta is absolutely stellar. Any preconceived objections I had dissolved before the end of the first half-hour. Filmed in Africa and on former plantations, product value is truly top flight. With every scene it is evident there was great care and love in this retelling.