When Alex Haley set out to write Roots, he spent seven years searching for the name of the ship that brought his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, from Gambia to Annapolis in the 1760s. He traveled to Africa and met with griots—oral storytellers trained to recite the history of their village—who recounted detailed genealogies of the previous two centuries. Corroborating these accounts with British military logs, Haley was able to narrow Kunta’s abduction to 1767, and the ship to the Lord Ligonier, bound for Annapolis in July of that year. It is here that Roots begins.
Years after the initial success of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, and the ensuing allegations that it was neither accurate nor altogether original, Haley sat down for an interview with journalist Marcia Alvar at the University of Washington to discuss the impact of both his book and the associated miniseries that aired on ABC in 1977. It was 1991, the year before Haley’s death at age 70.
“Do you think if Roots were shown today for the first time,” Alvar asks him, “that it would have the same impact?…Or was it a program very much a part of the time in which it was shown?”
“If Roots had come out in 1966, ’67, ’68, in that period,” Haley answers, “I think that the response to it would have been very different. I think that it would have generated a lot of anger…a lot of negative actions.” He brings up the demonstrations, marches and ubiquitous violence during the civil rights movement. By the time the book came out in 1976, Haley argues, “people were more ready to deal with racial matters—at least conceptually.”
Presumably, people today are even more ready for that conversation than they were 40 years ago. But they are also ready to discuss the topic of immigration, an issue that wasn’t nearly as prominent in 1976, but is certainly just as much at the forefront of Roots as slavery. Few scenes are as powerful as the ones in which Kunta Kinte resists his Americanness, by rejecting his slave name, Toby, and rejecting Belle, a caring woman who mocks him for all of his “African mumbo-jumbo.” Fortunately, this thread of ancestral remembrance finds its way into the remake—sometimes seriously, but also amusingly, like when Kunta-turned-Toby teaches his teenage daughter Kizzy how to be a Mandinka warrior by having her pull him around in a cart.
In 1977, monochromatic shows like Happy Days and Charlie’s Angels ruled television, while programs that portrayed black people—Good Times or The Jeffersons—often did so through rigid stereotypes and stagnant, one-dimensional story lines. Then came Roots, the eight-part ABC miniseries based on Haley’s book, and suddenly “more than a hundred years, generation to generation, continent to continent” of black history were on full view. Rather than focusing on the present, the program accessed what many blacks had considered to be unattainable: the past.
On May 30, 2016, the History Channel began airing its big-budget, four-episode remake of Roots, starring Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and T.I. Everything about the update is crisper and edgier. Even its viewer discretion warning is sharpened with 21st-century perspective: “The following historical presentation contains intense language of the time period and violence.”
Of course, we all know what “intense language” they’re referring to here. It’s the N-word, a slur that is peppered throughout the series. The trigger warning is understandable, given the sensitivity surrounding the word; I cringe at even spelling it out for this article. And yet, there’s something laughable in the phrase “of the time period”; it suggests that the racial slur—which still sporadically appears on walls, comment sections and the lips of whites and blacks alike—can be relegated as a thing of the past rather than something that is still strikingly present.
The new Roots rests upon what the old one breezes past. The increased violence is a result of our generation’s clearer and more nuanced historical perspective on slavery, and the creators’ need to get it brutally right. Rather than juxtaposing the comfort and familiarity of Kunta’s life in Africa with his violent, submissive one in America, as the original miniseries does, the new film presents his village of Juffure, West Africa, as toxic in its own right. “Like the Greeks, Romans and Hebrews, Mandinka kept slaves as servants,” Fishburne narrates, evoking a 2010 article written by Henry Louis Gates Jr. about the crucial role the African elite played in the slave trade. To emphasize this, an African then starts beating another African—the first of many acts of violence to come—and a moment later guns are drawn.
There are many differences between the old and new miniseries. The original is very much Haley’s personal project; the new Roots is for a generation that settles for nothing less than the most accurate of facts and the most stunning of cinematography. It’s targeted to a new crop of historians, one that can accept that Africans—although certainly influenced by outside white influence—had a hand in the brutal life that Kunta and his descendants were forced to live. What’s more, this generation can accept that this truth does not detract from the evils of slavery, but shines more light upon the universal language of greed.
Feature photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.