Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 29 through June 4, 2016, is the first installment of the History Channel's new version of Roots.
When the History Channel announced it was remaking Roots, the initial response was the same as when any beloved cultural work is remade: Is this really necessary?
It's easy to see why this is often the reaction when remakes are announced. Hollywood seems overrun by old ideas rather than new ones. And when it announces a remake or reboot, it's almost always of something people already love, rather than, say, a story with a good premise that had lousy execution in its first go-around.
Yet while the new Roots, which aired over four nights from May 30 through June 2, doesn't seem likely to have the same seismic impact on the American conversation as the 1977 original, it's a thoroughly well-done version of largely the same story, reinterpreted respectfully, yes, but with an eye toward the kind of emotionally complex melodrama that made the original a sensation.
And in so doing, it suggested a very real reason for remaking Roots every so often: If we're going to keep telling fictional stories of American history (and we probably are), then this should be one of them too.
Roots was one of pop culture's first real attempts to grapple with slavery's legacy
Let's lead this off by admitting that author Alex Haley's original description of his book Roots as "faction" — meaning the dialogue and many of the incidents were invented but the basic contours of his family's history were accurate — was generous. Dubbing the book historical fiction would have been more accurate.
Both the book and miniseries' most famous character, Kunta Kinte, a free man kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery, seems unlikely to have been Haley's ancestor if, indeed, he existed at all. In addition, Haley faced accusations of plagiarism, settled a lawsuit related to it out of court, and eventually admitted he had taken portions of Roots from another book.
But Roots' strength was never tied to how true it is to people who actually existed. This isn't a biopic of a particular famous figure. It is, instead, an attempt to document America's core sin by telling the story of slavery through the point of view of those who had to live as slaves, those who are too often turned into abstractions in history texts.
The 1977 miniseries was likely the single most influential cultural artifact to deal with the horrific legacy of slavery. Its finale was watched by half the country. And as Matt Zoller Seitz points out at Vulture, its canny casting convicted white America without preaching. Writes Seitz (in an essay that should be read in full):
The show’s casting masterstroke occurred in the white roles. They were filled by actors who had usually played sympathetic, adorable, or noble characters. Ed Asner, best known as the curmudgeonly but honorable Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, played the hired captain of the ship that brought Kunta and other kidnapped Africans to the United States. The moment when he’s shown the blueprint of the ship and realizes what those cramped berths and shackles are for, then accepts the job anyway, might be the most damning statement TV had yet made about the white man’s ability to compartmentalize revulsion when there was money to be made.
Thus, even if this new spin on Roots were literally a shot-for-shot remake of the 1977 original (and it's not), it would still have worth as the latest retelling of a story America probably doesn't retell as often as it should. And because of the original's popularity, the remake stands a good chance of getting TV viewers to grapple with something this hard to look at straight on. (It also doesn't hurt that the story is packed with action, melodrama, and even lighter moments — for better or worse, Roots isn't a slog.)
But this is more than just a remake. It's also an attempt to shift viewers' focus back to the word in the title.
The remake incorporates modern production styles — for whatever that's worth
If you haven't watched the 1977 Roots in a while, it's ... creaky. This is not to say it's bad. It remains one of the handful of genuinely important television series ever broadcast.
But it was made on a too-small budget in 1977 on ABC, a network that never quite believed it would be a hit and forced creative compromises on the filmmakers that undercut slavery's brutality. To watch it now is essentially to have to preface the viewing with an hour-long lecture on why Roots matters and the cut-corners realities of late '70s TV production.
In that sense, the 2016 Roots' strongest quality is simply that it looks like a TV series being made in 2016. It has the high-gloss veneer of a cable drama and a cast filled with familiar faces.
The acting quality is slightly more variable than the 1977 film, but there are still tremendous performances, from Forest Whitaker (as Kunta's surrogate father Fiddler), Malachi Kirby (as Kunta himself), Anika Noni Rose (as Kunta's daughter, Kizzy), and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (as a slave owner), in particular.
Each of the four installments stands as its own miniature "episode," telling roughly one story about one character in the Roots family tree, but one that's informed by those who have gone before. And I like the way the new miniseries keeps its eye squarely on slavery but has room in its peripheral vision for commentary on how the pre–Civil War South was an awful place for Native Americans, women, and white men who weren't part of the landed gentry as well.
This version is also better directed, particularly in the first installment; directed by Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce, it concludes on a gorgeous image of Kunta Kinte, bleeding after being viciously whipped, collapsed on the ground and cradled in a pieta-style pose by Fiddler, ash drifting around the two of them.
There are similar moments and images in the original, but Noyce's eye for tiny visual details (that ash!) pulls this together into everything Roots stands for — the monstrousness of slavery and the indomitable human will required to keep going in the face of it.
Due to the issues that have been found with the tome since it was published, the 2016 version no longer adapts Haley's book as directly as 1977's miniseries did. Kunta's kidnapping, for instance, gains several layers of complication here that don't really add much to the overall story.
But this allows the 2016 version's (slightly) more artistically adventurous filmmaking to underscore the story's central idea of family connections' ultimate primacy, an idea expressed in visual motifs and images that recur again and again.
Roots is also a deeply felt family drama
One reason Roots is so successful is because it tells a story about slavery all Americans must hear via a story every human being alive can relate to on some level — the webs of family that tie us to the past and extend beyond us into the future.
It's right there in the title: This is the story of one man tracing his family's genealogy. Because he is descended from slaves, that story must begin with slavery, but it's still, on some level, a family drama.
Spiritual echoes of his African past haunt Kunta well into his middle age, and the same naming ceremony, held beneath the stars, is carried out, again and again, across generations of his family.
This, again, was something the original did, but the new version pushes it even further — with echoes (sometimes, in the case of a particular piece of music, literal ones) of Kunta's African past weaving their way into his family's story of itself and their local culture more generally. It's a potent reminder of how past influences present to create the future.
Everybody comes from somewhere, and the better you understand that somewhere, the better you understand yourself. That's a message essentially anybody can relate to — but Roots pushes past that message by creating a world where one family's story is interrupted by great, unnatural trauma, visited upon it by outsiders.
The beauty of that first installment (in both versions) is how it takes viewers to Kunta's life before the slave trade. The reason Kunta remains the most remembered character of the series is thanks to the way the story gives us a taste of a home he loves very much, then rips it away from him viscerally. We know he'll never get back, even as he doesn't, and that creates a terrible dramatic irony.
That's also how Roots wears down any arguments that might be presented against it. Kunta tries to escape, again and again, because he reasons one plantation's defenses are no match for a determined, smart man at his physical peak. And he's right about that. He gets off the plantation a fair number of times.
And the miniseries primes you to want him to escape, to fight back, to get away. It sets him up as the desperate, risk-taking kind of character who's easy to admire, and we're used to seeing those sorts of risks pay off. Yet every time he's recaptured, and every time he winds up right back where he started.
Roots isn't just a historical document or a family melodrama — it's also an attempt to convict those of us viewing it who might have benefited from the slave trade but for the era we were born into. It's a reminder that the reverberations of this particular past are not so very far away from us now, hundreds of years later.
What Kunta misses, what we might miss, until it's rubbed in our faces, is that his entire society is constructed to return him right back to his prison. No matter how fast he is, he can never outrun that.