When I first heard the 1977 miniseries “Roots” was being remade for the History Channel, I didn’t think it was a good idea, yet “Roots” 2016 is very much a miniseries for our times. Even then, it doesn’t get everything right.
The original miniseries was eight episodes and introduced us to LaVar Burton as a young Kunta Kinte and John Amos took over the role to play the mature Mandinka warrior, now a slave.
The 2016 version is four two-hour episodes and a bigger budget ($50 million versus $6.6 million).
This version stars Malachi Kirby (“Eastenders” and “Doctor Who”) as both the young and older Kunta Kinte. Kunta Kinte’s family politically in conflict with another Mandinka family, the Koros. It is the Koros who capture him and other members of his family and sell them into slavery to white slave traders in exchange for guns. The African slaves attempt to rebel while on the ship to Virginia–which is now a British colony, but the mutiny is put down. Kunta Kinte is sold to John Waller (James Purefoy), a tobacco plantation owner. Waller’s wife renames Kunta Kinte “Toby.” Toby is put under the care of Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), a slave who plays the fiddle and is “rented” out to other families. Kunta Kinte continues his escape attempts and refuses to accept his new name, but in the end, after being flogged by the overseer, he submits. Fiddler tells him to safeguard his real name.
Part 2, jumps forward to 1782, during the American Revolutionary War. Kunta Kinte successfully escapes and attempts to join the British Army, however, his regiments is defeated. He is recaptured and punished for escaping, using a means to prevent him escaping again–half his foot is chopped off.
Fiddler and Toby/Kunta are sold to John Waller’s brother, Dr. William Waller (Matthew Goode of the 2013 “Dancing on the Edge” 28 episodes of “The Good Wife,” and as the man who wins Mary’s affection in the final season of “Downton Abbey”). Fiddler and Belle (Emayatzy Corindealdi) help Toby/Kunta heal. Eventually Toby/Kunta and Belle marry, with Toby/Kunta accepting the jumping over the broom ceremony to please Belle. After Belle gives birth to a baby girl, Toby/Kunta takes the baby and Fiddler to the woods for a Mandinka naming ceremony where he dubs her Kizzy.
As they return from the ceremony, they are confronted by a slave patrol and Fiddler distracts them so that Toby/Kunta and his daughter can escape. Fiddler is murdered.
Kizzy grows up friends with Dr. Waller’s niece who teaches her how to read. Toby/Kunta teaches her parts of her Mandinka heritage. Kizzy grows up and falls for a slave named Noah (Mandela Van Peebles) who she helps escape. Noah is killed, but on him the save patrol finds Noah had travel papers forged by Kizzy.
Waller’s niece is unable to save Kizzy and Kizzy’s punished for both her literacy and her forging by being sold to Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in North Carolina. Tom rapes Kizzy who bears him a son.
In Part 3, the son George (Jaylin Ogle) becomes involved in chicken fighting, learning how to breed and train the roosters. Becoming Chicken George earns him privilege that other slaves do not have and he travels and becomes a showman. He’s dressed in tattered finery, just a little bit better than most slaves, but not as nicely as the Fiddler had been. Even though his master Tom Lea asks him to serve as his second in a duel with another slave owner, he is still not really either a son nor a friend to his master. The duel allows Chicken George to get permission to marry another slave, Matilda (Erica Tazel), but illustrates how Tom Lea is really viewed with contempt by the rest of the society.
Kizzy has a chance at love with a free black man, but Tom Lea displays a perverse sexual jealousy that dooms this romance.
Chicken George and Matilda have several children and Chicken George continues to win for his master, but his master has a gambling problem. Eventually, Tom Lea wagers big, promising Chicken George his freedom if he wins. Chicken George does win, but Tom Lea isn’t satisfied and wagers again, this time losing to a British gentleman. Since he can’t pay the debt, he instead sells Chicken George to the British man. Chicken George is dragged away, bitterly renouncing his father and former master and unable to bid his wife and kids goodbye.
In Part 4, the American Civil War has get to begin and we see a finely dressed Chicken George in England entertaining a crowd before he returns to America, bitter at both the broken promises of his former masters. Although his British master finally did free him after many years, it seems that the promise was dangled in front of him for far too long, with little consideration for his family.
Matilda and his family are now owned by another man, Benjamin Murray (Wayne Pere). Murray seems to be a decent man as far as slave owners go, but his son, Frederick (Lane Garrison) is trouble as is his fiancée, Nancy Holt (Anna Paquin).
While Matilda welcomes George back, not all of his children are delighted at his return. Tom (Sedale Threatt Jr.), George’s son who was named after their master Tom Lea, has become a blacksmith and is a privileged slave with a profession and loaned out to other plantations.
When the Civil War breaks out, Nancy reveals to Tom that she is a Union spy. She asks Tom to help her, but Tom refuses until his sweetheart is raped by Frederick and his friends. Nancy, however, is discovered and she and her slave (Mekhi Phifer) are lynched. This I found troubling because women were often treated differently.
George and another black man have joined the Union Army, but the Confederate Army had different policies against black troops. George is at the Battle of Fort Pillow, also known as the Fort Pillow massacre.
That battle takes place on 12 April 1864 at Fort Pillow in Henning, Tennessee. After the Emancipation Proclamation (1 January 1863) the Confederacy had passed a law in May of the same year that classified captured black U.S. soldiers as slave insurrectionists with an automatic sentence of death. Fort Pillow (named after Confederate Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow who built it in 1862) was in Union hands and held about 600 soldiers, both black and white. The black soldiers were under the command of Major Lionel F. Booth (6th U.S. Regiment Colored Heavy Artillery and the 2nd Colored Light Artillery). The white soldiers were under Major William F. Bradford (13th Tennessee Cavalry). Both Booth and Bradford were killed.
In “Roots,” George and Tom are witnesses to the massacre under the command of Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest. They and another black man manage to escape with Chicken George convincing the Union Army to save them because of Tom’s skills as a blacksmith can be useful. At the end of the war, George leads his family away from the Murray plantation to Tennessee after shooting Frederick dead. In Tennessee, Tom have a daughter, the first ancestor of Kunta Kinte to be born free. From her, eventually we come to Alex Haley (Laurence Fishburne) who writes the book about this journey.
The budget on this miniseries allowed for the inclusion of the battle scenes and better sets than the original. There is more time spent in exploring the rich culture that Kunta Kinte was taken from. The repetition of the child naming ritual shows how culture continues and is changed. What seems out of place is the hanging of the female spy by Frederick and the shooting of Frederick by Chicken George without any deadly repercussions.
According to the “Mother Jones” coverage of “Roots” 2016, where the writer Michael Mechanic watched “Roots” with Arizona State University historian Matthew Delmont (“Making of Roots: A Nation Captivated”). Delmont said of the murder of Frederick by Chicken George and Kunta Kinte’s murder of the overseer, “These characters get revenge is ways that probably aren’t historically accurate.”
Mechanic commented “that revenge provides an unrealistic relief” and called it a “Django Unchained” thing.
Delmont commented that the hanging of Paquin’s character “was a real surprise” but confessed that he was “not aware of any historical example of this, although there were women who spied on both sides.” The essay on women spies during the Civil War on CivilWarSaga.com also doesn’t list any hanging of female spies.
In this respect, “Roots” panders to the audiences of today, offering feel-good moments for the black audience in a narrative that is supposedly based on reality, on the truth of one’s man’s ancestry that is already a mix of fact and fiction–“faction” as Alex Haley preferred to label his book.
“Roots” does elevate the cultural importance and social development of the Mandinka and Africa in general and forces us to look at the Civil War from another, less noble point of view. As the movie “Glory” showed, the American Civil War was experienced differently by black soldiers, and, as “Free State of Jones” indicated, poor whites of the Confederacy also had different experiences. “Roots” is currently streaming on Hulu.