“Respect your elders” is a common phrase that’s been used in homes for generations. It comes with the implication that we should respect those that come before us as they’ve lived longer and experienced far more.
The 1977 adaptation of Roots was made for my elders, by my elders, about my elders. And I respect it just as I would my elders. I watched it for the first time when I was no older than 10. I was sitting in my living room circa 2000 eating fried catfish with my mom’s boyfriend. I remember seeing Kunta Kinte being whipped nearly a dozen times before whispering the words “My name is Toby…” and watching Belle crawl on her knees as she begged for Kizzy to not be sold away.
Since the History Channel announced that they would be rebooting the critically acclaimed slave narrative, Roots, reactions have been split, with the two actors who depicted Roots‘ most recognizable character, Kunta Kinte, each taking a side.
John Amos, who played an adult Kunta Kinte, told Mashable that the film would be a “pale imitation of the original” and LeVar Burton, who played a young Kunta Kinte, was hesitant to become a part of the project but eventually became a co-executive producer after speaking with producer Mark Wolper. Wolper explained to Burton that while today’s younger generation understands the importance of the original adaptation of Roots, they don’t have the same connection to it.
And, as far as timeliness is concerned, 2016 is a great time to provide context on the history of black lives as their value is a constant part of today’s political conversation.
I was old enough to know that slavery was a tragic part of American history and explained how my family eventually ended up settling in the Midwest when I saw Roots for the first time. But, much like Wolper’s children, I wasn’t able to get engulfed in the story like the generation before me had. There was something blocking that deeper connection.
In my experience, there’s a line that can be drawn sometime in the early ’90s. And if you were watching Roots for the first time on the wrong side of it, you likely had a very different viewing experience than those who’d watched before. For many viewers, the production values and pacing of 1970s television has proven to be a great stumbling block to appreciate Roots.
The fictionalized story of Alex Haley’s family legacy is a great tale that deserves to be retold many times so that it’s never out of the public consciousness. It may be too much to ask a 16-year-old with still-developing tastes who spends their afternoons literally watching history as it happens on social media to sit down for eight hours of made-for-TV filmmaking from an era with markedly different aesthetics.
With the evolution of viewing practices have come new expectations for audiences. The History Channel’s reboot delivers what it needs to see for a slave narrative to truly stick to their minds.
Slavery was uglier and more horrific than our pampered minds can likely imagine and the ’70s adaptation left a lot to the imagination by merely suggesting some of the more graphic moments. Do we need to actually watch Kunta Kinte’s foot be cut in half and see a young Kizzie Waller walk into a river and internally battle the thought of drowning her newborn son to be affected? Maybe. Maybe not. But younger viewers, arguably those most in need of learning about the realities of the past, might think it strange for a series to hold back on the explicit details.
The new Roots also boasts some fine performances from an up-and-coming generation of actors, particularly Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte, Emayatzy Corinealdi as Belle and Regé-Jean Page as Chicken George. This, combined with the many familiar faces throughout, such as Forest Whitaker, Derek Luke, Laurence Fishburne, has no doubt helped Roots find a younger, wider audience than the original could reach today.
Those who choose to exclusively support the first adaptation have every right to do just that. But they should do so keeping in mind that this version wasn’t made with them in mind.
Was a Roots remake necessary? If the story is not to remain a thing of the past, there’s no doubt that it was.