No one used the phrase when the original version of “Roots” aired in 1977, but the adaptation of Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book was, among so many other things, an irrefutable declaration that “Black Lives Matter.”
The declaration takes on even more urgency and deeper, more unsettling meaning in the stunning remake that premieres on Monday on three separate networks, and continues over the next three nights. Haley’s search for his ancestry took him to an era in our history when black lives only mattered to many white Americans for the work they could perform and how much they might bring at auction.
Even if the remake were not as good as it is, it demands our attention because it is airing at a time when the ideal of a post-racial America at least seems more beyond our reach than at many other times in our history. The times cannot be denied and context is at least as important as the quality of the new adaptation. For both reasons, “Roots” is a television and cultural milestone.
Airing concurrently on the History Channel, A&E and Lifetime, the story begins in Africa with a focus on a young man named Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), a typical teenager in many ways — cocky, callow, and most of all, self-focused. He is on the verge of manhood and anxious to take his place as a great warrior in his tribe, when he is suddenly swept up by slavers and sold to the British, who transport him and hundreds of others to the Colonies, chained to the bottom of a ship’s hold.
As a slave on the plantation belonging to John Waller (James Purefoy), Kunta Kinte is beaten, mistreated, degraded, whipped so savagely that the flesh on his back dangles in strips, but he never surrenders his dignity, his desire for freedom and most of all, his identity. Although renamed Toby by his white masters, he is always known as Kunta Kinte among the other slaves.
Aching for his own father, Omoro Kinte (Babs Olusanmuskan), Kunta Kinte finds a father figure in Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), a man who enjoys limited privilege on the plantation because of his skill as a violinist. Fiddler has made some accommodation with his status as a slave, but he has not forgotten his real name (Henry). He admires Kunta Kinte’s rebellious spirit, but knows the young man has to be careful, even when he is sold to Waller’s seemingly more enlightened brother, Dr. William Waller (Matthew Goode).
The miniseries may veer into obvious melodrama from time to time, especially in the latter two nights, but the fact that it never loses credibility owes to the care with which the moral bases of the characters are created. We see William as the more humane Waller brother, for example. He almost seems to treat Kunta Kinte as an equal, perhaps even a friend. He abhors the way his brother treats his slaves. But when Kunta Kinte says something that William misconstrues as the kind of remark one friend might say to another about an enviable love affair, William puts him viciously in his place. The point is clear: There is no such thing as a “good” master.
The story moves from Kunta Kinte to his only child with his wife, Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who had nursed him back to health after he was was brutally maimed. Their daughter Kizzy (Emyri Crutchfield as the teenager, Anika Noni Rose as the adult character) is torn from her parents at 15 and sold to Irish-born plantation owner Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who rapes her the night she arrives and continues to rape her on a regular basis for years. The first encounter produces a son named George who, later in life, earns the sobriquet Chicken George (Rege-Jean Page) for his skill at training roosters for cock fighting, the primary source of his owner’s income.
Chicken George is accorded some level of privilege by Lea because he’s making money for “massa.” But like Kunta Kinte, he’s eventually reminded, in the harshest way, that he is only “property” as far as his owner is concerned.
The final chapters in the saga bring us to the Civil War, which offers a chance for black soldiers to gain a kind of temporary freedom by joining the Union Army. Chicken George signs up, and though he may have spent much of his life as a smooth-talking bird handler, acting almost as if he were a free man, his marriage to a preacher’s daughter named Matilda (Erica Tazel) and the birth of his children have changed him. He finds new purpose in his life fighting for the North, despite the fact that black soldiers are not allowed to carry rifles.
The performances are staggering throughout the entire miniseries. Of course we expect quality from actors like Whitaker, Rose, Goode, Meyers, and Anna Paquin as the Quaker fiancee of a Southern plantation owner’s son and Mekhi Phifer as an apparently mute slave. But there is an element of special purpose in every one of their performances.
Kirby, a young British actor known for roles on “East Enders” and “Doctor Who,” not only commands the first half of the miniseries, his presence echoes through the final two nights as well. His performance, heartbreaking, noble and unforgettably human, is nothing less than a career maker.
Similarly, Page has a relatively short resume which is destined to grow larger because of the work he’s done on “Roots.” Like Kirby, he is called upon to take his character on an expansive emotional journey and meets the challenge with unwavering credibility and depth.
Corinealdi’s longest gigs included the Ron Perlman series “Hand of God” and the soap “The Young and the Restless.” Her magnetic and forthright performance as Belle is one of several memorable portrayals of powerful female characters in the new “Roots.” Similarly, Erica Tazel has done fine work on series such as “Justified,” but here she delivers a beautifully nuanced turn as Belle.
Four directors share credit for the series: Bruce Beresford, Mario Van Peebles, Phillip Noyce and Thomas Carter. Each brings something different to his episodes without veering too far afield from the overall concept of the miniseries, which is a mostly well-written melodrama. The end of the war prompts a rare moment of painful overwriting as Matilda delivers a speech about what freedom has cost her family and so many other African-Americans, and there are other moments here and there that nudge credibility, but ever so slightly.
Matilda’s speech may be overwritten, but the words are nonetheless true. Slaves paid dearly for their freedom — with their dignity, self-respect and their lives. It’s hard for Matilda to celebrate the end of the war, knowing that.
Soon enough, former slaves realize that freedom doesn’t automatically bring respect and opportunity. Through the lens of our own times, we know something the former slaves don’t, that the struggle will continue down through the decades and right into our own century. Kunta Kinte and his descendants didn’t have to be told that their lives matter. It is what sustained them for generations in the face of prejudice, mistreatment and abasement. And it is why the remake of “Roots” speaks so eloquently to our own times.
Where to watch
The four-part remake of “Roots” airs at 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday on the History Channel, A&E and Lifetime.