When I was a creative black girl growing up in the U.S. during the sample-heavy hip-hop era, my momma explained the golden rule of remakes: if you can’t do it better or significantly different, leave it alone. Will this weekend’s release of Roots pass momma’s test? We’ll see – on three stations, even – the new version will air on History, Lifetime and A&E cable television channels over the next four days, while America celebrates Memorial Day.
If you’re not familiar with the original, Roots was a groundbreaking 1970’s mini-series about one African-American family’s journey from freedom and independence in pre-colonial Africa, through several generations of slavery, to “emancipation” and “progress” in post-Civil War America.
The series is based on a book by African-American author Alex Haley about one of his ancestors: a man named Kunta Kinte who was born and raised in a West African village until in his late teen years, when slave raiders snatched him up and threw him in the bottom of a ship bound for America. There, he was sold to a plantation owner, who literally beat him into submission.
Kunta surrendered, publicly at least, his identity – his language, spiritual beliefs and practices, occupation and even the name his father gave him – to become who and what his white master ordered him to become: Toby, a slave and a “nigger” with little memory of his past or hope for his future. But Kunta/Toby survived and went on to become a patriarch of an African American family that eventually brought forth Haley. Obviously there’s a lot more to the story than that – the mini-series was nine hours long and ran for eight nights when ABC-TV first ran it.
Roots was groundbreaking because when it came out in 1977, America was in the midst of transitioning from an openly segregated, violently racist society to … well … a society with legal protections for the racial minority that descended from men and women like Kunta Kinte. After all, it had not even been ten years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Despite the Civil Rights movement’s legal victories, the heart of American racism was still fighting to stay alive. (It’s that same heart that is being exposed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the police violence that made the Black Lives Matter movement necessary.)
Before Roots, American movies and television had spent decades openly making fun of Africans and African Americans. Studios and even news channels unapologetically used the power of the media to justify racist attitudes and to expose millions of viewers to damaging and hurtful stereotypes over and over again.
Now they were going to show slavery on television without making fun of the negroes or continuing the lie that our ancestors were all happy and content to be slaves? Heavy, as they would have said back in those days. Millions of viewers tuned in to see this unprecedented television event; Roots set all kinds of records for most-watched mini-series.
As a late Generation X baby – I was born just a year before the series premiered – I can say that some of my generation’s earliest understandings about slavery, and what it means to be black in America came from Roots. I watched the series almost every Black History Month in a dark room with my classmates, on one of those old-school pull-down screens with a filmstrip clicking behind us – long before the days of VHS tapes, let alone a Blu-Ray.
The producers say today’s digital generation can’t relate to the 1970’s technicolor story of slavery, but they need to know it. Levar Burton, the original Kunta Kinte, said he was even skeptical of remaking it, but he relented because “there is a whole generation of Americans who don’t know the story, who don’t have a connection to Roots.”
Fair enough. But this is not the 1970’s in another very important way: since Roots came out, there have been a lot more movies, TV shows, documentaries and more made about slavery. Can you honestly say that after Django, 12 Years a Slave, Book of Negroes and the currently-running television series Underground, in the era of YouTube and Netflix, that American youth of any race don’t have access to relatable stories about slavery? Or is it important that they connect with Roots, specifically?
When you hear in the video interview that the white producer’s teenage son can’t relate to the original or that Anna Paquin – who is starring in the remake – doesn’t know much about slavery in spite of her education and exposure to the world, you wonder who is this remake really trying to reach?
The photo shoot attached to The Hollywood Reporter’s article left me feeling even more odd about this “more violent and more accurate remake”: what does Anika Noni Rose’s lacy peekaboo dress have to do with forced labor and why is Anna Paquin wearing a black cocktail dress to promote a movie about plantation life?
Black Twitter will no doubt weigh in on the value of this millennial-friendly version of Roots between the Memorial Day festivities. On the plus side, the new cast is packed with African-American Hollywood stars whom many of us respect, including the masterful Forest Whitaker (Last King of Scotland, A Rage in Harlem) and delightful Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls, Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency). There’s also an opportunity to watch talented newcomer Malachi Kirby portray Kunta’s agony to a whole new generation of viewers.
However, a lot of black folks are awfully tired of watching slavery movies or black servitude movies, especially when it seems like the only recognition black actors receive from the Academy Awards are for playing a slave, a maid or a criminal. Some feel that we need to focus on our future more than our past – after all, even Kunta Kinte went on to play a space traveler on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Others, like myself, are tired of watching ourselves being victimized, especially so another big-budget film can break records at the box office. Where do you draw the line between exposing the suffering that our ancestors endured and exploiting it as part of American cinema’s overall love affair with violence and gore?
We are already oversaturated with videos of police beating, dragging and shooting black human beings in the present-day. Who wants to watch graceful, beautiful Lupita Nyong’o or strong, handsome Malachi Kirby be beaten and humiliated until we freeze in powerless horror like the slaves in the Willie Lynch letter or boast naively as we kids did upon watching Kunta accept his new name: “that couldn’ta been me back then, they woulda had to kill me.”
The case could be made also that big-budget American media has a lot of catching up to do in portraying African-Americans’ centuries-long experiences on film. The few times mainstream media has taken up the subject, our history has too often been misrepresented or told from a “mainstream” perspective that was safe and nonthreatening to America’s white majority, even going so far to center the stories on the few white allies over black determination to be free.
But for all its association with Hollywood and a major television station, Roots did change a lot of people’s understanding about slavery. Is it fair to dismiss the attempt to share the movie’s message beyond its original audience? Is Roots one of those stories that needs to be made fresh for each generation? Or, like its Confederate apologist alter-ego movie Gone With the Wind, for example, does the original stand the test of time? Can Hollywood be trusted with responsibly treating our most vulnerable collective memories? Do we have the power or right to hold the industry accountable, with hashtag protests like #OscarsSoWhite, if we feel they fall short?
Personally, I would love to see more movies about black history in America made for another audience altogether: Africans whose families were not forcibly removed from the continent. There is a huge gap of understanding at times about what African Americans endured in the centuries between our ancestors’ involuntary departure from Africa and the reappearance of our likenesses in African homes as rappers, ball players and movie stars on satellite TV. Not only those of us whose ancestors landed in the United States (where only about 5 percent of all enslaved Africans ended up), but stories about those like the remake’s Jamaican-British star Malachi Kirby, whose family was enslaved in the West Indies and later migrated to England.
I wish documentaries like Bound by Kenyan filmmaker Peres Owino, which attempts to bridge the gap between Africans and African Americans, were the talk of the town. I wish more black folks knew about independent films like Sankofa and Quilombo, that examine slavery from both a non-Western and non-US standpoint. I especially wish for more films that show African Americans what our ancestors were up to long before they arrived in America, in chains or even before the slave trade began. That would go a long way in reversing those old stereotypes about what Africa was like before whites arrived to “civilize” everything by force, which continue to be passed down.
But until Hollywood is ready to explore these aspects of our heritage, Roots, it is. In the meantime, check out the trailer and draw your own (premature) conclusions: