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Set in the present progressive tense, the word “storytelling” is inherently one of active motion. And while the story of Kunta Kinte — the enslaved protagonist of Roots — is grounded in horrors of the past, the idea that forward-moving progress could be born out of its retelling was what castmembers celebrated most at Monday night’s New York premiere of the History Channel reboot.
“Contextually there’s that old saying, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change the more, they stay the same. But I would say that history doesn’t repeat itself — it rhymes,” Mario Van Peebles, who directed the second episode of the series, said at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. “If we don’t look back, if we don’t understand where we’ve been, how do we clearly discern where we’re going moving forward?”
Based on the 1976 best-selling and Pulitzer-Prize winning book by Alex Haley, in which the author traces his ancestors back to Gambia and then follows their path to America as slaves and eventually into freedom, the new Roots reimagines the 1977 original that became a cultural phenomenon. More than 100 million people tuned into the finale when the 12-part ABC miniseries came to an end.
The four-night, eight-hour event premiering Memorial Day, which was developed by History from A+E Studios, will be a historical portrait of American slavery that recounts the journey of one family and their will to survive and ultimately carry on their legacy despite hardship.
“It’s more than just great television: it’s a cultural moment, it’s a conversation, it’s a work of beauty, it’s an incredible story of family strength and perseverance. It’s a conversation that unfortunately, 40 years after its original premiere, we are still having,” A&E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc said during her opening remarks.
“I am not a fan of remakes, I will be honest with you,” LeVar Burton, who starred as the original Kunta Kinte, said to a standing ovation after Dubuc’s remarks. “I did not think this would ever happen, I did not think this should happen, necessarily.”
But executive producer Mark M. Wolper, whose father produced the original Roots, changed Burton’s mind with the help of his own story. “I sat my 16-year-old boy down three years ago to watch [the original] Roots, and when it was over he said, ‘Okay, Dad, I get why it is important, but it’s like your music — it didn’t speak to me,’ Wolper said on the carpet. “And I realized in that moment, that’s why we have to do Roots again.”
In remaking the series with the help of historians, the landscape of actual plantations (the original was largely filmed on the Disneyland Ranch) and a robust cast that includes Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Anika Noni Rose, Anna Paquin and rapper T.I., the new Roots narrative speaks to the children and grandchildren of those who grew up with the original.
“Visual storytelling changes as film evolves,” said Paquin, who plays Nancy Holt and walked the carpet with husband James Moyer. “The way that young kids expect TV to look now is very different than it was in the ‘70s, and this visually looks a way that will draw in younger people, which I think is important.”
Lane Garrison, who plays slave master Frederick Murray and was 13 when he first watched the original Roots in junior high, tried to make light of the heaviness on set when he could. “My first day on set was in Napoleonville in Louisiana, and I’ve got a crazy beard and confederate garb on and I’m in character saying all of these horrible disgusting things,” he recalled. “So the minute they yelled ‘cut’ on the first day, I turned to everyone and waved and said ‘Hi, I’m Lane Garrison and it’s nice to meet you.’ Everyone started cracking up, so that broke the ice.” It was his first time on a plantation, “and probably my last,” he said.
It was also Rege-Jean Page’s first time on a plantation, first time in Louisiana and first time working in the U.S. “Stepping on the grounds that were quite literally fed on the bloodshed in the story — there is something incredible about seeing the direct line of that history to where we stand today,” he said on the red carpet. Playing the character of Chicken George, the grandson of Kunta Kinte and one of the series’ leads, took its toll. When filming wrapped, Page rented a car in Louisiana and drove for two days straight without a destination in sight before ultimately arriving in Florida, where he “sat out for a week” to recharge from the deeply emotional experience.
“What I learned most about myself in the process was how important where you came from is to your sense of self,” said the actor, who grew up between London and Zimbabwe. “You think it’s all you, as every teenager does, but it’s not. You are your mother, you are your father, you are everything that created your circumstances. But almost to the inverse of that — it’s possible to entirely create the world for yourself outside of all that. You are the culmination of everything that was built for you.”
That the screening took place hours after a Baltimore City police officer was acquitted of charges in the Freddie Gray trial made its relevance within the current political climate all the more palpable. Castmembers like Chad L. Coleman, who plays Mingo in the miniseries and formerly starred on The Wire, drew parallels. “We’re talking about ineffective systems, the same thing The Wire was probing. Systems that — you find, what is your motive? What are we trying to do?” he said. “Based on what we see, they’re trying to obliterate and erase the African-American male culture. I can only have hope that we will begin to stop with the same antiquated narrative — we will obliterate black and white and start to call each other what we truly are and we will begin to truly focus on class — and that is the key.”
In the 40 years since the book’s publication and the miniseries’ initial release, new and more horrific historical facts surfaced that led writers to modify the plot. When asked where the story might be another 40 years from now, Olivia Cole, who played Matilda on the 1977 series, suggested that its roots would continue growing.
“I believe in evolution,” she declared with a joyous fist pump. “I believe the story will keep evolving, I believe it will become the story of all of us in the process.”
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