When Roots premiered on ABC in 1977, the adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel was a defiant shout into a representational void.
The wide-reaching story of the African-American experience, told through one family’s trials encompassing abduction from West Africa in the 18th century, the brutality of slavery and war, and eventual freedom, defied all expectations to become a ratings sensation and an unprecedented Emmy juggernaut. But Roots was more than that. It was a declaration that not only did stories like this matter, but these stories had to be told — and they could be unflinching and entertaining and popular, that you can show this often horrifying piece of our nation’s history and audiences, unbound by color, would watch and learn. TV networks today are still struggling with that “specific stories can also be universal if they’re well-told” lesson.
Premiering on Monday and airing over four nights on History, Lifetime and A&E, the new version of Roots doesn’t feel like the same kind of outlier. This Roots is part of a conversation. It doesn’t need to carry the weight itself. Nobody expects this Roots to attract 100 million viewers in its finale, to be nominated for an unfathomable number of Emmys, to change the way an entire nation looks at its relationship to race and to a shame-shrouded chapter of its the past. Beyond doing no damage to an iconic brand that still means a great deal to legions of TV viewers, this Roots didn’t have to walk alone. It just had to try to be good and to advance a discourse that includes the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave and, on the small screen, BET’s very solid The Book of Negroes and WGN America’s terrific Underground.
Fortunately, this new Roots is very good, indeed. With only a small letdown in its fourth night, each part of Roots builds to its own sometimes rousing, sometimes infuriating, sometimes emotional climax and is directed with confidence and propulsive energy by Phillip Noyce, Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter and Bruce Beresford, there’s a satisfying cumulative punch at the end.
Special and particular credit to casting director Victoria Thomas, who has assembled a collection of future breakout stars including Malachi Kirby, Emayatzy Corinealdi, E’Myri Lee Crutchfield, Regé-Jean Page, Michael James Shaw, Mandela Van Peebles and Sedale Threatt Jr. to go along with established stars like Forest Whitaker, Chad L. Coleman, Anika Noni Rose, Mekhi Phifer and, as narrator and playing Alex Haley, Laurence Fishburne.
While some of the character names have been changed from Haley’s book and some of the extraneously added characters from the 1977 miniseries have been removed — Sorry, fans of Ed Asner’s Captain Davies, created to salve the audience’s white guilt — the plot and its essential structure remain intact. The miniseries has also been fleshed out with new details about African tribal culture and a more pragmatic and realistic take on plantation life and on how black soldiers were treated in the Union army.
The first night focuses on fledgling Mandika warrior Kunta Kinte (compelling Brit Kirby), abducted by a rival tribe and sold into slavery, as he experiences the nightmare of the Middle Passage and is taken to the plantation of the cruel John Waller (James Purefoy) where he meets the kindly Fiddler (Whitaker, predictably soulful and strong). The second night introduces Belle (the tremendously charismatic Corinealdi, who deserves the biggest career bump here) and stretches the story into the Revolutionary War, which seems to offer thwarted possibility of freedom. As time passes, the third hour focuses on Kunta’s daughter Kizzy (a charming Crutchfield in the previous night and then the determined Rose) and grandson Chicken George (newcomer Page, another great British discovery), as well as an unexpected amount of cockfighting. And as we move into the fourth hour, the build-up to the Civil War brings in Kunta’s great-grandson Tom (Threatt Jr.) and characters played by Tip “T.I.” Harris, Anna Paquin and a mustache-twirling Lane Garrison.
On a night-by-night basis, Roots works the tricky balance between misery and uplift. Even if it can’t tap into the sui generis newness of the original, the miniseries is often brutal and harrowing. And just because we’ve seen a few slavery-related stories hardly means that this is a period that has been depicted in excess. Roots is emboldened by modern cable leeway and top-notch makeup work to make every lashing seem more lacerating, every blow more hobbling (but oddly, not when it comes to the old-age effects), though the series avoids ever feeling exploitative, especially when it comes to sexual violence. Amid beats of the story that are sure to push viewers toward outrage, disgust and sadness, whether it’s the specifics of slavery or historical events like the Fort Pillow Massacre or the blowback from Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, the darkest parts of Roots are intended as learnable and teachable moments in a series that isn’t for the youngest of viewers, but will surely follow its predecessor to become a classroom favorite.
And Roots is blessed with a great supply of joy and levity and even romance, particularly with Kunta and Belle. There are weddings, celebrations of spirituality and, in a few cases, beats of outright comedy, often worked cleverly onto the cusp of the most dramatic moments. The triumph of ancestry and family legacy, the ownership of identity, this is the thread that’s woven throughout and I’ll be darned if I didn’t get misty-eyed with each recurring Mandinka naming ritual binding generations together.
The directors find a way to make each chapter distinctive. Noyce strikes an immediate contrast between the open spaces and free-moving camera work in the African scenes and the claustrophobia of Kunta’s oceanic voyage. Kunta’s youth leads to a slow awakening to his new situation, which makes the bluntness of Van Peebles installment, in both its highs and lows, more powerful. Even as it pivots to a new central character, Carter’s episode is perhaps the series’ liveliest thanks to Page’s open, theatrical performance and another nice bit of contrast work, between the almost Gone With The Wind-esque tableaus of the Southern aristocracy and animalistic treatment of the world of cockfighting, a different kind of violence that is likely to also unnerve some viewers. The focus only really wanes in that fourth installment, which introduces too many one-dimensional new characters and anti-climactic subplots before eventually sticking a landing that earns its sentiment.
The 2016 Roots probably won’t have the societal impact of the original. The viewing landscape is too fragmented and the stubborn “I’ve seen this before” (or “Why would you try to do Roots again?”) feeling too entrenched. It will also have a hard time making a dent in a stacked Emmy category expected to be dominated by Fargo and The People v. OJ Simpson, a very different period examination of the racial divide. Still, this Roots feels rejuvenated and vital, capable of stirring up valuable discussion and launching or accelerating the careers for a dozen members of its main cast.
In response to the “Why do Roots again?” question, the answer is in the execution.
Cast: Malachi Kirby, Forest Whitaker, Chad L. Coleman, Anika Noni Rose, Mekhi Phifer, James Purefoy, Anna Paquin, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Emayatzy Corinealdi, E’Myri Lee Crutchfield, Regé-Jean Page, Michael James Shaw, Mandela Van Peebles, Erica Tazel, Derek Luke, Matthew Goode, Sedale Threatt Jr. and Laurence Fishburne.
Based on the book by Alex Haley
Airs: Monday-Thursday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (History, A&E, Lifetime)