Racial tensions remain decades after original miniseries aired
on the surface.”
At a screening of the remake at historically black Howard University April 19, the crowd cheered during a scene (also in the original) that saw Kinte and other Africans attempt to seize control of a slave ship. A panel afterwards included discussion of mass incarceration, which some have equated to modern-day slavery.
At a YouTube-broadcast panel after a recent White House screening, activist DeRay Mckesson said Roots fits into a larger legacy of struggle.
“We know that we did not discover injustice in August of 2014,” Mckesson said, referencing the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
“We didn’t invent resistance, and Roots is a powerful reminder that we exist in a legacy of struggle — and that we shouldn’t.”
Both versions of Roots are difficult to watch. Even if you haven’t seen the original in its entirety, there are moments that probably linger in your consciousness — such as Kinte being viciously whipped until he calls himself Toby, the name given to him by his slave masters. When Kinte tries to escape, part of his foot is chopped off as punishment (an anecdote Kendrick Lamar relates to today’s generation in the 2015 song King Kunta). There are brutal rapes, lynchings and separations of families.
The original Roots marked the first time many Americans saw an authentic portrayal of slavery. In November 1976, NBC aired 1939’s Gone With the Wind, in which the breezy depiction of slavery perpetuated “myths about the bloodiest slave uprising in American history. The film received a standing ovation — and the U.S. Grand Jury Prize — at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
WGN America’s drama Underground, which premièred in March and portrayed a group of slaves escaping their Georgia plantation, drew a clear parallel to current conversations about race and the value of black lives. #BlackLivesMatter often showed up alongside hashtags for the show. The season finale introduced Harriet Tubman as a character, weeks after the Treasury Department announced the black abolitionist leader would appear on the US$20 bill.
“I want to be counted,” Noah (Aldis Hodge), the leader of Underground’s runaways, said in the season finale. “It’s our hands that built this country. It’s our blood that’s running through the heart of it. We keep it beating. Seem to me that make me more American than any of you.”
Misha Green, who co-created Underground with fellow Heroes alum Joe Pokaski, said they asked Hodge and co-star Alano Miller for insight while writing that monologue. What would they, as black men in America, want to say?
“We really wanted to give voice to what Noah or the Noahs of the past had been feeling at that time and how that connects to what people are feeling today,” Green said.
America’s discussions about race have also surfaced in television shows with more contemporary settings. Fox’s upcoming limited series Shots Fired will revolve around the aftermath of a racially charged shooting. Scandal and Law and Order: SVU aired episodes depicting shootings of unarmed black men last year. The Carmichael Show devoted an episode to Black Lives Matter, and Blackish explored police brutality.
The connections to current events in the Roots remake and Underground are more subtle — but no less powerful.
Because the original Roots aired in an era with only three major commercial networks, it will be impossible for the remake, which will be simulcast on U.S. sister networks A&E and Lifetime, to have as big of an impact in terms of sheer numbers. But Roots is a forebear to the way we watch television now — primed for discourse, most of which happens on social media.
One thread of discussion about the new version will be how it holds up to the original.
“For all of those who are skeptical, for whom Roots is a treasured part of their lives and are at all hesitant about tuning in to this new Roots,” Burton said, “please know that throughout the course of the production, I had their backs.”
Malachi Kirby stars as Kunta Kinte in the remake of Roots. LeVar Burton played Kinte in the original version, which aired in 1977.
Laurence Fishburne plays author Alex Haley.