Roots re­vis­ited

Racial ten­sions re­main decades af­ter orig­i­nal minis­eries aired

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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.

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