[This is a review of the Roots miniseries. There will be SPOILERS.]
Remakes, re-imaginings, or updates of films and television series are so commonplace in today’s media landscape that an effort to revitalize something as momentous as Roots nearly 40 years after it initially aired as an event series on ABC may have felt to some as an inevitability. This time, though, the filmmakers and producers behind the impressive update are more conscious of the power the story has and have set the eight-hour miniseries to air across four networks – A&E, History, Lifetime, LMN – simultaneously for the next four nights. Such and effort to ensure the event series reaches as many potential viewers as possible is a far cry from how the original miniseries starring LeVar Burton was viewed in 1977. Initially thought of as a failure in the making, ABC made the decision to air all eight episodes on consecutive nights to avoid it detracting too much from the regular lineup. Instead, the network found it had a cultural phenomenon on its hands, a true event series that was seen by more then 100 million people and forever marked its place as a television milestone.
The remake stars Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte, Forest Whitaker as Fiddler, and is narrated by Laurence Fishburne as author Alex Haley. But it also boasts an impressive supporting cast that includes Derek Luke, Mekhi Phifer, Matthew Goode, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anna Paquin and many more. Like the original, also based on Haley’s novel of the same name, Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, who was abducted from his home in Juffure, Gambia as a young man to be sold into slavery, and continues to tell the story of his descendants more than a century later as they make their way through the American South following the Civil War.
The original miniseries became an important piece of television history not only because of its massive ratings success, but more for how it encouraged discourse regarding race relations and the country’s history with slavery. These issues are still relevant today and with television having become a far more respected medium since the original was first aired, the potential for this update to be well received and possibly even surpass its predecessor in terms of the artistry of its storytelling, certainly makes the prospect of viewing the remake much more attractive.
Shepherding this new version are writers Lawrence Konner (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire), Alison McDonald (Nurse Jackie), Charles Murray (Sons of Anarchy), and Mark Rosenthal, along with directors Phillip Noyce (Salt), Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter (Bosch), and Bruce Beresford. The writers and filmmakers have put together a strong, oftentimes powerful and unwavering narrative that makes the most of the cable television format and the miniseries’ eight-hour runtime. Each night becomes a continuation of Kunta Kinte’s story and his family, but they also function as their own self-contained two-hour movie, each with a complete beginning, middle, and end that makes the installment feel a part of the larger whole, but also distinct in its own right.
The first night spends a considerable amount of time focused on Kunta’s background and childhood growing up in Juffure, exposing the audience to his culture by way of his family and traditions as he makes the transition from boy to man. The always-great Derek Luke is on hand as Kunta’s uncle Silla, while Babs Olusanmokun plays Kunta’s father, a powerful figure in his son’s life both as someone to aspire to and an authority figure to be defied as Kunta comes into his own as a man. Subsequent nights shift the focus to Kunta’s daughter Kizzy (played initially by E’Myri Lee Crutchfield and later by Anika Noni Rose) and the abuse she suffers at the hands of slave owner Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Later the story focuses on George (Regé-Jean Page), the product of Kizzy’s rape by Tom, and eventually George and his family’s struggle for freedom in the final evening.
The first night is harrowing in its depiction of the conditions suffered by Kunta, his uncle, and the other captors aboard the ship taking them to America. As with Kunta’s background and the exploration of his culture, the remake takes full advantage of its time in each segment, delving further than its predecessor into the characters’ background, while remaining steadfast in its depiction of the brutality and dehumanization suffered by those taken from their homes to be sold into slavery. The first episode contains a number of notable sequences, but Noyce in particular makes the most of an unsuccessful attempt by Kunta and the others to overthrow their captors, turning it into another horrific display of ruthlessness by those who would capture and sell other human beings.
Later in the first episode, Forest Whitaker becomes the first in a series of remarkable supporting performances that help carry the miniseries through to the end. His Fiddler adds considerable weight to Kunta’s story, serving as a surrogate father of sorts to the young man, while at the same time is made to question his own compliance as he bears witness to the young man’s repeated attempts to regain his freedom. It is one of several impressive performances intent on making this update of a television classic something more than a mere remake. The effort put forth by the writers, actors, and filmmakers have updated and reimagined the miniseries to be a powerful reminder of the past and how stories like Roots deserve to be retold.
Roots continues Tuesday night @9pm on History, A&E, Lifetime, and LMN
Photos: Steve Dietl