There’s not much of a happy ending for the characters in Roots, the remake of the seminal TV miniseries that premieres on the History channel on Monday.
Each of the four episodes teases Kunta Kinte and his progeny with freedom, only for them to find out slavery will not let them go. In the end, the passage of time sweeps them out of bondage, but another form of prejudice awaits. All they have to hold on to is their family, their name and their pride. The best we can hope for these people is that they don’t allow the world to strip them of that pride.
It’s not really a story that causes viewers to rush into the streets in fits of unbridled joy, but it is without question the most popular piece of literature about slavery in America. The Alex Haley novel was a New York Times bestseller and the original ABC series boasts the all-time second-largest audience for a series finale. One hundred million people tuned in for the last episode of Roots, a number unheard of in today’s TV landscape outside of a Super Bowl.
This new version serves the same story of survival across generations in a slightly slicker package. The action scenes, such as they are, are rendered in a more visceral fashion. Even the cockfights of the brash Chicken George in episode three are thrilling, assuming you forget that this is a dramatic recreation of two animals forced to kill each other for sport.
The makeup and physical effects are also superior. Every scar and cut is affecting. The infamous scene of Kunta Kinte’s foot being severed is gruesome without drifting into exploitation. The new film’s score was even supervised by Questlove of The Roots, upping the hipness factor by a few degrees.
Apologies to LeVar Burton – the first Kunta Kinte and a co-executive producer – but the acting is also supremely improved. Anika Noni Rose plays Kizzy, Kunta’s daughter, with ample amounts of life and vigor, even in the most horrific situation imaginable. Special praise goes to Regé-Jean Page, who portrays the adult Chicken George. He channels the charming rogue but pivots nicely toward gravitas in the final episode.
Befitting a slave narrative, the white characters are uniformly disreputable racists, though the original Roots series shoehorned Ed Asner to be a “kinder, gentler” slavemaster, out of a misguided sense of white guilt. In this Roots, the white characters are a never-ending parade of sadists and demons.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers dusts off his Elvis accent to play Chicken George’s monstrous hillbilly rapist father. Matthew Goode plays another slavemaster like a darker (or maybe more realistic) version of his character from Downton Abbey. Anna Paquin pops up in episode four to sneer at people. I think it must be some sort of rite of passage for every British and Australian actor to play an American slaveowner at least once.
Each episode hews closely to one protagonist: Kunta in episode one, Kizzy in episode two, Chicken George in episode three and Tom in episode four. This keeps the whole affair fresh and propulsive. This is, after all, a sprawling tale of one family’s experience in America.
It does get a bit fuzzy by the final episode. Hip-hop star TI appears in a small role and a civil war espionage subplot I don’t remember from the original gets grafted on to what, up until that point, was a rather intimate story. The kids these days, they love their spy stories, don’t they? That must be why AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies is so bloody popular.
The modern slave narrative has changed thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a film that took the basic framework of a tale of subjugation and rearranged it to be a story of a lone black man who fights his way out of subservience to reclaim his personhood through extreme violence. That is a clear fantasy story, something that exists only in the modern conception of racial politics.
Django added blaxpotation and western tropes into the slave tales of films like the first Roots mini-series to create a completely new genre. Django is a revisionist history – a film that gives contemporary audiences the sort of happy ending we desire, befitting a nation that honestly, illogically believes that it has exorcised the demons of racism. It does it with the sort of cutting-edge special effects and film-making techniques that the new Roots hopes to take advantage of.
But Roots hasn’t endured because of high-concept action, wish fulfillment or fancy prosthetics. In fact, it has survived in the cultural consciousness in spite of the limitations inherent in the medium of television. It’s also survived the failings of its author.
Alex Haley was sued and later admitted to plagiarizing an earlier work, plus the mislabeling of his work as more fact than fiction. Roots doesn’t have to be a true story to be powerful. It’s a fable – one with an origin in reality, but a fable nonetheless. It can stand for the millions of other stories just like it – stories of men and women in bondage, yearning to be unchained.
Though this version of Roots ends with Laurence Fishburne, playing Alex Haley, stepping out of his office and into a vision of his noble ancestors, it’s easy to project the struggle of Kunta, Kizzy, George and Tom as the same basic struggle African Americans are still fighting today. The chains are not literal anymore, but the need to retain one’s identity in the face of systemic dehumanization remains.
This new Roots works because it taps into the need for black people to embrace themselves, to know that they come from somewhere, and that they are not a simple “other” to be ignored or debased. Your name matters. You are free.