In the second episode, Kunta’s teenage daughter, Kizzy (Emyri Crutchfield, later Anika Noni Rose), is sold to Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a particularly cruel master who forces himself on Kizzy immediately, impregnating her. Tom’s plantation is particularly dull and decrepit; his wife doesn’t look like a glamorous debutante but a sweaty, disheveled misery, and their house is falling apart. On this series, the antebellum South looks like nothing to feel nostalgic about.
Roots is obviously heavy fare, and it can be deeply upsetting and difficult to watch. But it also depicts a full range of life on the plantation; there’s despair, but also love, joy, and humor. Regé-Jean Page is smooth as honey as Kizzy’s grown son Chicken George, and in the third episode he slyly flirts with the preacher’s daughter in a sweet scene. When Kunta marries Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), he’s instructed to jump over a broom, a custom the other slaves describe as an African tradition; he says he’s never heard of it.
One noticeable departure from the original series is the relatively muted presence of the white characters. Jonathan Rhys Meyers gets a decent amount of screen time, but Anna Paquin, who’s featured prominently in the series’ marketing materials, appears only briefly in the final episode. Her role could have been fleshed out for the narrative’s sake, but overall, the focus on the African-Americans’ perspective is appropriate. A strong current of ancestral pride propels the series — a central motif is the Mandinka baby-naming ceremony, where the father holds the baby up to the stars. “You must always honor your ancestors,” Kunta’s father (the wonderful Babs Olusanmokun) says as he raises his infant son to the sky. Roots springs from the same imperative, a riveting, unflinching story in which the past collides viscerally with the present.
Roots airs over four consecutive nights, from Monday, May 30 – Thursday June 2, at 9 p.m. on History, Lifetime, and A&E.