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I wasn’t born yet when the original Roots miniseries aired on ABC in January of 1977. Lest you think I’m some young whippersnapper, I was born in 1985, eight and a half years later. But it has been almost 40 years since Roots captured the attention of American audiences, becoming one of the most watched scripted shows to ever to air on television. I may not have been around to experience Roots, but I’ve known about it for most of my life.
My parents had a copy of the Alex Haley novel on our family bookshelf (which I tried, and failed, to read when I was in middle school and looking for some “light” reading), and they often mentioned the sense of national connection everyone felt back in ’77 when nearly the entire country sat in front of their televisions, enraptured, for eight nights watching the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants. And while the entire country might not have been tuning in, per Nielsen, 51.1 percent of all American households watched the miniseries. That comes out to approximately 100 million people watching a single television event. For comparison, The Big Bang Theory was the number one rated series last week, with 14.2 million viewers.
I have never been in favor of remaking things that were pretty much perfect the first time around. But, in the case of Roots, which was made available early to critics to screen in its entirety, I think remaking the series was necessary. The first, and perhaps most important reason is that it has been 40 years since the original aired. Depending on how you slice it, in that time three new generations have been born. Three generations, most of whome haven’t seen Roots. Many of whom have never even heard of Roots (judging from a completely unscientific poll where I asked a number of young, 20-something friends if they knew what Roots was and all of them stared at me blankly after I informed them that, no, I wasn’t talking about the band The Roots).
The other very good reason? In the 40 years since the original, a great deal of research has been done into the actual history of Haley’s novel, fleshing out certain elements and adding depth to the story. That comes through in this retelling. The story may be largely the same as the original, but this adaptation is different enough to appeal to modern audiences. It is darker, more violent, and more historically accurate than the version that came before. And, in a time when tensions in this country are running particularly high, Roots is a particularly poignant reminder of where we once were as a nation, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.
As for what makes this version of Roots so compelling, it’s almost all in the performances, and how well each actor creates and nurtures their perfectly drawn character (even in the case of the series’s most despicable individuals). As with the original production, there are a number of star-making turns from largely unknown actors. Malachi Kirby leads the cast as Kunta Kinte, imbuing the character with such depth that his performance moved me to tears several times throughout the miniseries. Kirby is able to convey a host of emotions through a simple look, allowing the audience to feel Kunta’s pain, determination, hope, loss, and joy. It’s a brilliant performance that informs the rest of the series, and sets the bar particularly high once Kunta’s arc has ended.
Also of note is the work of Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy, Kunta’s only child. Rose, who, unlike Kirby, has a strong body of work behind her, handles the harrowing journey Kizzy undergoes with poise and brilliant understatement. Rose is also tasked with presenting Kizzy from age 15 through old age, no simple feat, but one that Rose makes appear easy. Rose makes clear the emotional and mental strength of her character, and it is nearly impossible not to root for Kizzy to not only survive the challenges and pain she faces, but to thrive in spite of it all.
The rest of the series’s cast is rich in talent, with a number of seasoned acting veterans joining the newcomers. Forrest Whitaker plays Fiddler, a mentor to Kunta who perhaps learns even more from the young man than he imparts to him, while Matthew Goode portrays Dr. William Waller, one of the “nicer” plantation owners who isn’t quite a lovely as he first appears. The only real casting misstep is in TI’s work as Cyrus in the miniseries’s final chapter. While he certainly tries his best, TI can’t match the caliber of performances surrounding him, particularly that of Rege-Jean Page as Chicken George, his frequent scene partner.
My one other issue with the series is its decision to use the same actors as the characters age upwards of 40 years throughout the story. Using the same actors does help continue the through line of the piece, allowing the audience to maintain their bond with a particular actor throughout, but the use of limited old age make-up highlights how young the actors remain instead of convincingly expressing the age of the characters. But this is a minor quibble, and it is easy to overlook the questionable make-up issues in light of the continued strong performances from the talented cast.
Committing to watching a show for four consecutive nights is a large commitment in this age of Peak TV. However, with many shows already finished for the season and the summer shows not yet begun, I urge you to take some time this week to sit down and watch this extraordinary miniseries. If you haven’t seen the original Roots, please watch this take on this important story, and if you watched the original, please give this updated version a look. Roots begins this evening on A&E, History Channel, and Lifetime, and continues Tuesday and Wednesday, before concluding on Thursday. Due to the violence (both physical and sexual) and liberal use of the N word, I would not recommend the series for young children.