Nearly 40 years ago, the harsh realities and moral scourge of slavery were beamed into the comforts of America’s living room, as the miniseries Roots told the horrific tale of slavery in the U.S., and in the easily understood media language of the everyperson — including this then-teenaged, impressionable viewer. In some way, we, as a general populace (100 million of which tuned into the final episode) came to picture the nature of subjugation by the vivid terms laid out on television. Here was a brand of “reality” television once removed — albeit in the narrative, “factional” context of historical drama — and with a higher cause. The ripples are felt in the collective consciousness, even still, and in newly revitalizing and Roots’-y roots-rediscovery ways.
In 1977, Roots brought to the small (but mass-culturally mighty) screen author Alex Haley’s epic roots-discovery mission — an account of his family tree going back to patriarch Kunta Kinte’s abduction from Gambia in the late 18th century through his forcibly estranged offspring’s fates to the qualified moment of “emancipation.” Two years later, the story moved forward in time, lineages, and in the successive waves of racial disparity and struggle, in 1979’s Roots: The Next Generations.
Fast-forward to the 2010s, and the saga continues, impacted and refracted by the recent Ferguson, Missouri–born Black Lives Matter movement and the controversy over the paucity of black artists in this year’s Academy Awards. Last week’s airing of the Roots remake retold Haley’s story in ways more vivid and enriched by new historical information and by standards of cinema/television, in a time when serialized television has come of age as an art form with higher ambitions, greater respect, and talent of an order formerly resistant to the “smallness” of TV. From a contemporary flat-screen-era TV watcher’s perspective, the miniseries was successfully addictive for “real time” viewers last week, and should be amply seductive to after-the-fact binge watchers.
Make no mistake: This was a massive effort, not a casual case of Hollywood retooling of existing material. The $50 million-budgeted project was spread out in two-hour segments over four consecutive nights, and on three networks — the History Channel, Lifetime, and A&E. In the new Roots, viewers get a grander feel for village life and slave trade-tarnished politics in Africa and a depiction of life in the cruel clutches of Southern plantations that feels more empathetic and also more wrenching. The central characters, including Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), his daughter Kizzy Waller (Anika Noni Rose), cockfight virtuoso Chicken George (Regé-Jean Page), Forest Whitaker as the wise and wizened fiddler, and Machiavellian slave master Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), lure us deep into the narrative folds of the piece — and keep us coming back for the next episode.
Also in keeping with the nature of New Television, four directors of note took charge of the project. Interestingly, the list includes two Australians — Philip Noyce and Bruce Beresford (who has dealt, more casually, with race issues in his film Driving Miss Daisy) — and two African-American directors, Thomas Carter, who has worked extensively in television as well as film, and Mario Van Peebles. Speaking of roots, Van Peebles, incidentally, is the son of pioneering indie African-American director Melvin Van Peebles, considered an auteur/architect of the ensuing “blaxploitation” cinema of the ’70s, and the subject of his son’s 2004 biopic Baadasssss!, riffing on the remarkable indie cinema tale of his father’s wild and influential cult favorite of a film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, from 1971.
Strangely enough, the 2016 Roots aired when the world of film has broken with a long-standing, implied moratorium on the theme of slavery. Quentin Tarantino’s audacious slavery semi-satire Django Unchained was, naturally, comically ultra-violent and nodded to the influence of Van Peebles, the elder, though drawing mixed reviews and responses. More seriously, in a powerful and unflinching way, 12 Years a Slave, which, like Roots, is also based on a true story, brought the issue of freedom versus slavery compellingly to the fore. This was thanks, ironically, to the efforts, artistry, and passion of a British director, Steve McQueen.
To give narrator’s closure to the new Roots, Laurence Fishburne, formerly the unseen voiceover monologist of Haley’s voice, pulls aside the curtain and emerges from the wings, appearing on-screen with the characters from the teleplay, commenting, “I hope my story honors them and brings pride.” From the outside viewer’s vantage, Haley’s story, boldly retold here, brings renewed awakening and spurs a desire to be wary of and try to transcend the seemingly hardwired racial prejudice in this land of immigrants, particularly at a moment when a certain presumptive and presumptuous presidential candidate seems to wonder whether many Americans’ lives matter much at all.