Remaking ‘Roots’ should have been an awful idea. But the new one’s great

Senior Television Writer
05.26.16 19 Comments

History

“This is how I heard about the boy, Kunta Kinte,” Alex Haley (Laurence Fishburne) tells us in the opening moments of History’s new miniseries Roots. “And this is how I’ll tell you the story.”

The importance of stories, and the way that we tell them, form the heart of the new Roots, which debuts Monday night at 9 (the eight-hour project will air over four straight nights, simulcast on History, A&E, and Lifetime). From the time we meet Kunta (Malachi Kirby) as a young man abducted from his home in Juffure, Gambia by slavers, until we leave his descendants over 100 years later in the post-Civil War American South, Roots prizes the power of stories and tradition, from how Kunta’s Uncle Silla (Derek Luke) teaches him the ways of the Mandinka warrior, to how Kunta’s grandson Chicken George (Rege-Jean Page) will tell his own offspring stories about the grandfather he never met, to give them hope and courage during the dark days of American slavery.

As one of Kunta’s descendants beautifully puts it late in the miniseries, “I can’t keep this family together if I don’t teach you where we come from, who you are, if I don’t remember who I am. So that’s why I gotta tell you this story.”

The story of Roots is iconic, but complicated. The original miniseries, based on what Haley claimed was a historically rigorous account of his family’s difficult past, debuted close to 40 years ago. ABC executives, fearing audiences wouldn’t want to watch a frank depiction of one of the biggest blights on our country’s history, scheduled it to air across eight straight nights in January 1977, hoping to burn it off quickly in a time of the TV season when it could do the least damage. Instead, it became a national obsession, with the final episode watched by over 100 million people. It became not only one of the most highly-rated shows of all time, but arguably the most important scripted TV show of all time, both for the way it promoted a new conversation about slavery and race relations, and the way it began to change television’s reputation into something other than a vast wasteland of shallow, silly programming.

The original miniseries — which starred a young LeVar Burton as Kunta, and co-starred Louis Gossett Jr. (Kunta’s slave mentor Fiddler), John Amos (as an older Kunta, now reluctantly using his slave name Toby), and Ben Vereen (Chicken George), along with a host of beloved white actors (Robert Reed, Lorne Greene, Sandy Duncan, Lloyd Bridges, Chuck Connors, and Ed Asner) as slave owners or traders — remains beloved, even after later investigation showed that parts of Haley’s original writing were historically inaccurate or outright invented. So why would anyone — including Burton himself, who serves as an executive producer on the new version, and has a brief cameo — be foolish enough to remake one of TV’s all-time classics?

For one thing, the new version — written by Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, Alison McDonald, and Charles Murray, and directed by Phillip Noyce, Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter and Bruce Beresford — gets to take advantage of all that research into Haley’s lineage done by later historians to present a richer and more accurate portrait of things. The early section in Juffure in particular goes much deeper into the specifics of the Mandinka culture and the ways that some of Kunta’s fellow Africans were equally villainous in his story.

For another, while the original is a classic, it’s a very dated one, with pacing and production values unlikely to speak to a new generation of viewers who might otherwise get something important out of the material. The remake doesn’t gloss over important moments, like the way Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), born into slavery, learns to respect and even envy Kunta for refusing to stop fighting and trying to escape, but it moves confidently and briskly throughout, and each night is cleverly structured as its own movie, telling one small piece of the family’s larger story: Kunta’s abduction and forced assimilation in night one, Kunta passing on Mandinka traditions to daughter Kizzy (played by E’Myri Lee Crutchfield as a teen, and Anika Noni Rose as an adult) in night two, Kizzy enduring the ownership and serial rape of Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyer) and his growing influence on their son George in night three, and an adult George trying to secure freedom for himself and his family in night four.

The miniseries doesn’t flinch on any of the horrific details of the story — the brutal conditions of the middle passage to America, Kunta being savagely whipped for refusing to answer to “Toby,” everything about the dynamic between Kizzy and Tom Lea, and frequent uses of the N-word — but nor does it treat its main characters as victims only. The story features sweet romance, and at times almost shockingly gentle humor — like the initial reaction by Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi) after Kunta proposes marriage to her — and makes sure to always understand and detail what makes each person tick. Because the contrast between life in Africa and America is so stark, the Kunta sections of the story are Roots at its most powerful, but the back half finds plenty of interest in depicting Kizzy’s anguish and the coming of age of Chicken George, an incredibly charismatic storyteller in his own right who just needs time to truly appreciate what Kizzy has tried to teach him about her father. For that matter, while the show doesn’t forgive Tom for any of his monstrous behavior, the writing and Rhys Meyer’s unvarnished performance sheds harsh, thought-provoking light on the mindset of a man who would consider ownership of fellow humans — including his own son — the natural order of things.

The miniseries is filled with superb, lived-in performances, but especially by Kirby, Page, Rose, Whitaker, and Meyers. The cast (which also includes, at various points, Mekhi Phifer, T.I., Chad L. Coleman, Erica Tazel, Anna Paquin, James Purefoy, Matthew Goode, and Sedale Threatt Jr., among many others) and crew had an impossible task in front of them, and they rose to the challenge.

At one point near the end, one of Chicken George’s kids tries to recreate a family tradition dating back to Juffure, choking up as he admits he doesn’t know the exact words or other details of the ritual. But he gets the sentiment right, and more importantly understands the significance of passing these ideas down from one generation to the next. It’s been almost 40 years since the original Roots entranced its audience. It’s more than past time to retell the story of Kunta Kinte, especially as well as all involved in the new version have.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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