I sat on my couch and had little success in choking back my tears as Chicken George limped down the road, bloody, beaten, but not broken. George had an incredible story. He spent 20 years away from his family, reunited with them then had to leave within 90 days of their reunion. He fought in the Civil War. And through it all, kept his love for his family alive and saw them reconnect during his twilight years.
The experience of watching Roots led to a series of conflicting emotions. It left me exhausted, but exhilarated. Tired, but triumphant. Drained, but high spirited. This apparently wasn’t true for everyone. The last day of the Roots series coincided with the start of the NBA Finals. While I tweeted about Chicken George and Matilda, most everyone else tweeted about Shaun Livingston and LeBron James. This wasn’t shocking.
Throughout the week, I’d seen people start the series and quit. Some couldn’t stomach the history. Others felt fed up with Hollywood’s decision to create another movie about slavery. Snoop Dogg most famously ranted on the subject. “No disrespect, but I can’t watch no mothaf*ckin’ more black movies with n*ggas getting dogged out,” he said in an Instagram post that also referenced 12 Years A Slave. “I’m sick of this sh*t. How the f*ck are they going to put Roots on, on Memorial Day They going to just to keep beating that sh*t into our heads about how they did us, huh?”
Snoop is wrong. While some might have a hard time taking any positives from the Roots remake, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Look no further than the way it depicts the traditions of Kunta Kinte’s Mandinka culture surviving the Middle Passage and making their way to America. The song Kunta’s mother has sung to him since childhood and the necklace she gives him when he became a Mandinka warrior are passed down from generations past.
It’s also worth considering the series’ lessons about names being central to one’s identity, particularly for stolen people in a foreign land. At the beginning of the movie, Omoro Kinte, Kunta’s father, holds baby Kunta up to the sky in a ceremony and says, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself.” Omoro performs the same naming ceremony for his daughter. Kizzy. Kizzy uses it for her son. George. Tom, George’s son, performs a modified version of the ritual when he named his first child that wouldn’t be born into slavery.
Roots also utilizes the character of Tom Lea (played in the remake by Jonathan Rhys Myers), to illustrate the politics of whiteness. Tom is a white slaveowner of Irish descent. His nationality is a clear detriment to his dreams of moving up the social ladder. Several instances reinforce Tom’s fixed status but none more pivotal than the dinner scene which leads to a pistol fight.