Forty-years ago Alex Haley’s “Roots” was presented on the small screen and captivated a nation. The immensely popular and moving story garnered 80 million viewers a night when it first aired in January of 1977. That year it was nominated for thirty-five Emmys. Therefore, when I first heard that “Roots” was being rebooted, I rolled my eyes. We are at a point when we are constantly being beaten down by the same stories playing in an endless loop over and over again. And yet, from the moment the thriving beauty of Juffure, Gambia was revealed in 2016’s “Roots”, I knew this would be something worthwhile.
HISTORY Channel’s “Roots” reboot is something we need right now. In the midst of the tumultuous political climate in this nation, and of the Black Lives Matters movement, it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come. Paying homage to the original series while embracing this gorgeously lush re-imagining, invites an entirely new generation to experience the phenomenal family saga. I am not so naive to assume that 2016’s “Roots” will even begin to touch the impact of the original series, however, this contemporary project is much more volatile and assertive than the 1977 saga could have ever hoped to be.
Last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had the opportunity to screen the first episode of the “Roots” reboot. “Roots” is a story of family, identity and resilience. English actor Malachi Kirby gives an awe-inspiring breathtaking performance as the strong-willed Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte, who is cruelly ripped from his picturesque Gambian village and sold into slavery. So different from LeVar Burton’s gripping performance, Kirby’s Kunta is unparalleled on his own. What sets this project apart from the original series, is the time we spend in Gambia, from Kunta’s coming-of–age ceremony, to his flirtations with a village girl, Kirby leaves you captivated from the first moment he appears on screen. The perspectives of white characters are also wholly erased here.
As I’ve stated previously, as I did upon reviewing WGN America’s “Underground”, I don’t understand the push-back against slave narratives. Should there be a plethora of other stories surrounding all facets of Black life? Of course. However, slave stories will always remain impactful, relevant and needed. After all, if we do not know our history and engage with it no matter how painful it might be, we are doomed as a nation to repeat it. Make no mistake; “Roots” is a lot to take in, in the same way that “12 Years Of Slave” left me with a lingering agony after viewing it. However, I can say that it is a worthy, lush and exemplary retelling of an American classic.
After screening the first two hours of “Roots”, executive producers Mark Wolper and Will Packer as well as cast members Malachi Kirby (Kunta Kinte), Regé-Jean Page (Chicken George), Erica Tazel (Matilda) and costume designer Ruth Carter chatted with the Tribeca Film Festival audience about the project. Here is what they said about re-imagining “Roots”.
Why do “Roots” Again?
Mark Wolper: My father produced the original “Roots”, Alex Haley was like a godfather to myself and to my siblings. It was a huge part of my life and in that way; I inherited the legacy of the project. For many years, broadcasters, cable networks, and studios, would say, “Let’s do ‘Roots’ again.” I resisted that until now. For forty years, I was afraid of the challenge. I was afraid of walking in my father’s shadow. I was afraid of the social environment and what’s going on in America today and what something like this might or might not represent, and how it might screw things up. So I kept saying “No” until I sat my 16-year old son, down who is exactly the same age I was when my father did the original “Roots”. I said, “You need to watch what you grandfather did.” He was very resistant to watch it. He said, it looked old, it wasn’t like the TV he watches today, and it was very hard for him to watch it. I literally had to hold him down to watch it, and when it was over he said, “Dad I completely understand now why this is so important but, it’s like your music, it doesn’t speak to me.” I realized then that we had to do it again. It’s history. It’s a part of America, it’s a part of who we are, it’s a legacy that was given to me, not to avoid but to embrace.
On Executive Producer Will Packer Coming to the Project
Will Packer: You know what? Some things that you do as a producer are easy, or at least easy decisions to get involved with. Like “Ride Along 2”, that was easy. However, when Mark and A&E brought the opportunity to me to be involved with this project, it scared me to death, I’ll be honest. But, I’m one of those people who believes you have to do the things that scare you the most. The thing that scared me about it was not the same pressure that I know Mark must have felt. As a Black man in America today, who has kids and who empathizes with a young generation who fights against the system of oppression, and who screams out that their lives matter, and that feels like there are things about themselves and their race and their culture that hold them back. For me, my concerns and my fears were, “How is this going to be received by that audience?” There were conversations surrounding the fact that there are other slave narratives out there, there has been content that has been created that goes there. What I realized is that, there is a whole generation out there who thinks that they know this story, but they haven’t seen what you guys just saw. They think they know who they are, and where they come from. They are trying to move forward, and they are trying to overcome forces and police brutality and oppression, but I don’t know that they have really embraced the fact that their ancestors had the courage that we saw Malachi [as Kunta Kinte] display on that screen. I don’t think they know that they are direct decedents of warriors in Africa who survived, and then were put on that ship and had that passage and survived. And then, were sold into slavery on American soil and all of the atrocities that we saw and survived. They are the decedents of survivors. So for me, it was very important for a young generation. I know that they have no desire to see the original; they have no interest. It doesn’t hold up in the way that they’re used to consuming contemporary films and television. So for that generation, I knew that it was important not just that we do it, but we do it right. Hopefully, this will be the “Roots” that will last another 40 years.
On Becoming Kunta Kinte
Malachi Kirby: The first thing was, doing my best to not recreate what LeVar [Burton] did. I didn’t want to touch his performance. I wanted to have completely fresh eyes. I did research on the culture, the tradition and even simple things from the way people talked, to the way people sat. I did my character work, in terms of knowing the entire character arc, but in terms of the actual journey that Kunta Kinte goes on, to be honest I had no idea how to prepare for that. I still don’t. It’s epic to say the least. I knew that there were things that Kunta Kinte goes through, that I would never be able to access, whether it was the physical or the intellectual. So I thought about all of the enslaved people that didn’t even make it off the boat, let alone get to the plantation and start their own families. I just thought about what gave him the strength to survive. What I found was that it was his spirit and his knowledge of self. For me that was the main point of preparation that I took, was to fill my spirit and fill my knowledge of self. In doing that as Malachi, I found a great pride in knowing where I come from, and that’s what I held on to for this journey.
The Message For Young Black Men Today
Malachi Kirby: Our history does not begin with slavery. And also, I would like for a young Black man to understand while watching this, that it’s not a negative thing to be African. And also, to understand that to be enslaved, that there is nothing to be ashamed of, those were strong people. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been slaves; they just would have been killed. They were taken to be slaves because of their strength, and they survived. We’re here now because they survived.
Chicken George’s Journey & Picking Up From Ben Vereen
Regé -Jean Page: First I just want to say thank you to Malachi. As someone who grew up in Africa, we often see ourselves portrayed by Americans on television, and it’s like “Oh…that’s what you think we’re like.” In terms of Chicken George, George is kind of a big character, so there was so much to connect with. I think you just have to get yourself out of the way, and just let him come through. There’s so much material on the page, I mean he literally talks through like 90-pages. It was having that type of energy in the most extreme circumstances, trying to figure out what to do with it, while being respectful of anyone who could be that extraordinary under that much pressure.
The Power & the Importance of the Female Character in “Roots”
Erica Tazel: There were definitely many representations of strong and resilient women throughout the miniseries. Since Matilda is the fourth matriarch of this family, I devoted a lot of attention to the matriarchs that preceded me, Binta, Belle and Kizzy. I looked at their relationships with their children, Binta to Kunta, Belle to Kizzy and then Kizzy to George, which I witnessed first hand. The obvious purpose and goal that we serve in this story is we are literally the physical carriers of the lineage that begins with Kunta, and ends with Alex Haley. And then, when I was reading Night One and it’s so beautifully portrayed when Binta gives Kunta that necklace, I began to think a lot about the ancestral torch. That necklace obviously makes it to America, and ends the series with us. In terms of that, I also began to embrace us as the carriers, the protectors and the passers of that ancestral torch, so that necklace was very symbolic for me. Matilda loses her husband, and then she is told to choose which three of her eight children she wants to sell, and that was the moment I knew I wanted to tell Matilda’s story. The circumstances surrounding that, I could never get over my initial visceral response, and I used that as the jumping off point. It was that moment that I appreciated Matilda and the power of her presence in this story. When we talk about Matilda, she’s often described of as a “preacher’s daughter” and “Chicken George’s wife.” However, I found myself describing Matilda as, the mother of Kunta Kinte’s eight grandchildren. So, how did I play that? I don’t know. But, I hope by the end of the four-night event that, whoever experiences this, realizes the presence and power of the women in “Roots”.
On The Costuming
Ruth Carter: I do a lot of research. I have to. I have to know what the clothes were for each era. It was 100 years, and people didn’t wear the same thing for that entire period. That means I sit with the actors in my fitting room, and we come up with a wardrobe that fits each story. I listen to their stories and the arcs and where they’re going. It’s a real collaboration.
On The Legacy Of “Roots”
Malachi Kirby: It’s about Africa. For me, Juffure was vibrant; it was a joyous life. They walked the earth with a sense of pride, elegance and royalty, and to know that this is my history is surreal. To understand that it is respectable to come from Africa. Also, just understanding the affect that slavery has had on our mentality today. On mine in particular, it just helped me to have an understanding of why a lot of the young people are very angry, and they don’t know why. There is a sense of pain and injustice that a lot of people feel, and they don’t even know where it stems from. “Roots” has given me a sense of peace personally, and I hope it will proved people with knowledge so they can understand why they feel what they are feeling.
Will Packer: What interested me most is the manifestation of the physical effects that slavery had on us as a society. That is something that, more than the chains, whips, harshest conditions, verbal abuse, destruction of the family, it is something that as the Black community we still feel the ramifications from. So, that’s another thing. Everything for me goes back to what we can take from this, and the conversation that it will spark, and how it will be received by a new generation. There are some negative generational cycles out there. There is a lot that we couldn’t do even though this was eight hours; there was a lot that had to come out. One of the things that was very important was that aspect of it. This system attempted to destroy the family, which to me is so weighty when I think about it.
Using “Roots” As An Educational Tool
Mark Wolper: At colleges across America, we are already starting to have screenings. Obviously, the whole point for me doing this project was about young America, black and white. My children have to understand from where the Black race came as well. This is not a one hander, we have to understand as white people where we came from also, where this relationship we’re in today came from, and everyone in between. Art is always I think, where everything begins. Discussion comes from art, revolution comes from art, and education comes from art. Our hope as filmmakers and actors is that the art we created will reach out to my 16-year old boy and Will’s children, everybody’s children and a new generation of people will have the same experience as the people who saw the first “Roots” to start the conversation, the dialogue and the debate. That’s what art always does.
On the Authenticity Of “Roots”
Mark Wolper: Alex wrote a novel. He wrote a history as he saw it. The history in our miniseries, and in the book is accurate. It’s the story of a family, and we could debate forever where we got the information, and how accurate it is. We know for sure that later in the history the information is more correct because there is more history available, and the earliest is less so, because there’s not as much material available. However, because of the reaction of the original “Roots” book and miniseries, the academic and archaeological research, the historical work that was done as a result, gave us the material to build this one more accurate than the last. And thirty years from now, someone will be able to make another one more accurate than this one.
On Preparing For The Whipping Scene
Malachi Kirby: I don’t really have a much better answer other than prayer. Every single day, and before every take, I prayed. I prayed for the strength to do it, and for the integrity. I’ve never been through that kind of pain, and because of that I don’t know how that kind of pain would make me feel. I’m not actually getting hit in that scene, so I knew I had to use something more than beating to convey that emotion. So, I prayed and asked God to take hold so that I could tell this truth. During the second take, I was filled with a pain that I had never felt before. I was tormented by it. It was not physical, but it was as if my mind had been suddenly opened to that pain of having your identity taken from you
“Roots” will debut on the HISTORY Channel, Monday May, 31st at 9PM ET with the three remaining parts in the same time slot through Thursday, June 3rd.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami