‘Roots’ is a Stunning, Unflinching Portrait of American Slavery and Ancestral Pride

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In some ways the decision to remake the wildly successful 1977 miniseries Roots feels like a stew of TV trends, the inevitable result of Peak TV combined with the emergence of more and varied stories about black lives on the small screen, with a dash of the recent popularity of miniseries and anthologies, finished off with our current vogue for TV remakes.

But the new version of Roots, based on Alex Haley’s best-selling novel chronicling his African-American ancestors from enslavement to emancipation, comes from a deeper place: Greenlit in the months following George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, Roots came about after Mark Wolper, whose father David produced the original, watched the series with his 16-year-old son — who could appreciate why it was important, but couldn’t forge a connection to it. The remake, which will be simulcast on Lifetime, A&E, and History over four nights starting Memorial Day, updates and recontextualizes the original series for the Black Lives Matter era to stunning effect.

Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), a young man growing up in the Gambia in 1750. The first episode establishes the world of his bustling village and his initiation into manhood via a training montage that culminates in a ceremony for the newly minted Mandinka warriors. In one eerie scene, Kunta and the other young men are training in the water when a boat full of men and women in chains silently glides by.

With his strong jaw and huge, imploring eyes, Kirby brings a jubilant energy to Kunta Kinte, who was originally played by LeVar Burton in his debut screen role (Burton is an executive producer here). We see Kunta sing and dance with the rest of the tribe and exchange flirty glances with his crush. He’s headstrong and stubborn, which only adds weight to the tragedy that’s about to befall him.

Kidnapped by a rival tribe in retaliation for a family dispute, Kunta is sold to the English and ends up on a Virginia plantation. Over four movie-length episodes, Roots chronicles Kunta’s descendants from the colonial era to the postwar years, emphasizing the emotional and spiritual connection between the American-born characters and their African ancestors. The tragedy lamented here is not just the brutality of slavery but the violence of wrenching generations of African-American families from their ancestral past.

Like WGN America’s Underground, a recent hour-long drama series about a fictional group of runaway slaves, Roots revamps the story of slavery for a new generation. The male bodies are harder, more muscular, and the action scenes more violent; there’s much more blood spilled here than in the 1977 version. The creators of Underground conceived of their show as an underdog thriller, and Roots also carries more of the trappings of the action/adventure genre than its source material. In both cases, the genre conventions — montages, chase sequences, moody lighting — render the enslaved characters superheroes, not just victims of a ruthlessly violent system but players with agency.

The show’s directors — Mario Van Peebles, Bruce Beresford, Thomas Carter, and Phillip Noyce, who each handle one episode — don’t shy away from gruesome, graphic images. The first episode ends with a brutal, four-minute-long scene where Kunta is whipped until he finally utters the name his master’s wife has given him. When a young man is caught trying to plan an escape, he’s shot several times in the back while running away, a clear reference to the scores of unarmed black men gunned down by police in recent years. We see bodies hanging from trees and heads stuck on pikes as a warning against rebellion. But, like the use of the “N” word, Roots is realistic but not excessive; the directors know when it’s important to look, but they also know when it’s time to look away.

Roots is visually striking, and departs from the original — and Underground — in its gritty aesthetic (the series is one of A&E’s most expensive projects ever). The remake doesn’t only update the look of the original to appeal to the sensibilities of a young audience accustomed to TV that looks cinematic; it also viscerally confines the viewer to the reality of the enslaved. The Southern plantations are not sun-dappled but muddy and bleak, and the skies are perpetually grey. The slaves wear filthy, tattered clothing. Even the women who work in the big house wear mismatched hand-me-downs, not matching uniforms like the house slave characters on Underground.

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.