4-episode miniseries; approximately 1 hour and 42 minutes each
My Rating ★★★★★
“In telling Roots again, one of the critical things for us to do is to tell it more accurately than it was told the first time.” — Mark Wolper, Executive Producer of Roots (2016)
“If the History Channel and A+E Studios could get a reboot right, why can’t 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, Paramount, and pretty much every other big–budget movie production studio do the same?” That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately. Don’t get me wrong, there are films in the Fox library that I love, like How Green Was My Valley, Alien, Fight Club, and even Deadpool. However, Fox is also to blame for Hitman: Agent 47 (2015), Fantastic Four (2015), and Poltergeist (2015). Meanwhile, Sony Pictures has given us the The Amazing Spider-man, The Amazing Spider-man 2, and Ghostbusters (2016), with Paramount on the verge of releasing a Ben–Hur reboot that looks like a poorly written mash-up of Gladiator and 300. For a long time I’ve felt there was no chance of seeing a reboot that lived up to the original, but a few weeks ago I saw Roots on the History Channel…and it gave me hope. In a cinematic period crammed with reboots and even crappier reboots, through meticulous research, extensive talent searches, and plain old respect for the original material, the History Channel has managed to achieve the impossible: Remake a film that is on par with the quality of the original, if not superior to it.
In the Beginning, There Were Lies
Written in 1976, Alex Haley’s bestselling novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family was and is described as the story of Haley’s ancestors, a story that spans six generations. According to Haley, he gained an interest in his heritage and his search for answers led him to the West African city, Juffure, where supposedly his research led him to surmise he was a descendant of the African slave, Kunta Kinte. As much as the book Roots… is the product of Haley’s work, it is perhaps equally the product of his plagiarism of Harold Courlander’s novel, The African, published in 1967. On the heels of Roots’ critical acclaim Courlander sued Haley, with the subsequent trial resulting in Haley’s admission of plagiarism and a financial settlement.
Despite the murky storyline of the novel, it was the basis of one the most unprecedented productions to be televised. In 1977 Roots became the first televised production to depict life as slave from the slave’s’ perspective, solidifying its place in both cinematic history and the memories of countless viewers. Roots garnered 28 Emmy nominations, and won 9 Emmys and a Golden Globe for Best TV Series (Drama), serving as the catalyst for future televised productions that would tackle the subject of slavery, such as Roots: The Next Generations (1979), North and South (1985), and the made for TV movie, Roots: The Gift (1988). Certainly there would be no Underground without Roots.
Room for Improvement
So how do you fix something that’s, at least in public opinion, not broken? How do you reboot a film that is considered a classic? You analyze the original film, acknowledge its flaws and oversights, and determine how they can be improved upon in the reboot. With Roots (2016), the production team chose to first focus on correcting any historical inaccuracies present in the original miniseries, enlisting the aid of 9 distinguished historians to accomplish this. This time around, Roots gives viewers a realistic representation of the city of Juffure and its people, and we see that Juffure is a city, and not the isolated little village initially depicted in Roots (1977).
Regarding authenticity, I am appreciative that the scenes that took place in Juffure were filmed on location in Africa, and that the prop team succeeded in replicating a full scale cargo ship, equivalent to the type of cargo ship that would’ve been used between 1750 and 1766 to transport slaves. When you see the slaves below deck on this ship, sweaty, exhausted, and suffering from oxygen deprivation and motion sickness, it not only looks real, it feels real. The writers and directors don’t spare you the awfulness of slavery and life on a plantation, and as a result this take on Roots is more realistic than the 1977 version. Head Makeup Artist for the African shoots, Christa Schoeman, researched the beauty practices of the Mandinka tribe, so when viewers see the Mandinka on-screen the look of the tribe is genuine. Costume Designer, Ruth Carter, researched the costume design and color palette of previous slavery-themed films and recognized that the standard color of slave and African attire depicted on film was a bland beige, and thankfully chose to deviate from the norm by infusing color into her costume designs. Carter also discovered that indigo was a dominant color worn by the Mandinka tribe, and managed to incorporate that element into her costume designs as well.
We Needed Some Fresh Faces On-Screen
By going back to the basics of movie casting, the basics being a broad talent search, screen tests, and the casting of up-and-coming actors, the production team succeeded in casting the best actors suited to portray the characters on-screen, while introducing new talent to viewers everywhere. Afterall, Tom Cruise wasn’t always the A-List star he is now; he was discovered. According to Executive Producer, Mark Wolper, the quest to cast the perfect Kunta Kinte spanned “…3 continents, 17 cities, and 600 filmed auditions of 6,000 actors.” Malachi Kirby (Eastenders; Doctor Who) was cast as Kunta Kinte, and he did a fantastic job. I have no doubt Kirby felt the weight of taking on this role, made legendary largely due to LeVar Burton’s performance in the original Roots. Kirby conveys the joy, pride, sadness, and strength of Kunta Kinte. His portrayal of Kinte’s struggle to remain himself and stay true to his homeland, his refusal to adhere to his master’s demands that he conform to life as the slave Toby, and his relationship with the well-liked and ever obedient slave, Fiddler, played by Forest Whitaker (Fruitvale Station; The Last King of Scotland) is heart-rending.
Budding actor Regé-Jean Page (Waterloo Road; Survivor) portrays Chicken George as a late teenager and adult, and he deserves an Emmy NOW. Chicken George is a multi-dimensional character. He’s humorous, clever, compassionate, and strong-willed, but Page manages to convey every aspect of George’s personality flawlessly. Not only that, Page holds his own in scenes opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors; Match Point), who (like the rest of the cast) is an extremely passionate actor. In Roots, Meyers portrays George’s father Tom Lea, a volatile, detestable gambler, who cares more for his money and land than his own son. Meyers is explosive as Tom Lea, and he was perfectly cast because his ability to go from tender to enraged from one minute to the next is needed to play the unpredictable Tom Lea. I was overjoyed to see unfamiliar faces cast as leads in Roots (2016), and given Kirby’s and Page’s performances as Kunta Kinte and Chicken George, respectively, I have no doubt both actors will soon have flourishing careers in cinema.
Submissive Negro Fatigue Is Real
Look, I understand the exhaustion with films depicting the “submissive negro”, because I too am guilty of occasionally suffering from what I’ve termed “Submissive Negro Fatigue”, or SNF. While it is frustrating to see actors of color constantly cast in submissive roles in films like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I hate seeing actors of color cast as stereotypes or characters of no significance even more. Films like Panther, Dope, and Straight Outta Compton are rarities, not the norm, but in all honesty there hasn’t been that many films that touch on slavery, the Holocaust, or the genocide of the Native American people, so the argument that films about slavery are no longer needed is ridiculous. I need to see a hell of a lot more films like Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and Tarantino’s Django Unchained before I can even consider being done with movies that touch on slavery. Props to the History Channel for not airing Roots in February, a month when even then it’s barely acceptable to acknowledge slavery.
Movie Production Studios, Take Note
If studios like 20th Century Fox would just pay attention to what the History Channel did with Roots and learn from their mistakes, the thought of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York being rebooted wouldn’t make me want to cry. Since big-budget movie production studios clearly have no interest in adapting innovative scripts, the least they could do is have some respect for the material they’re rebooting. If a reboot doesn’t serve to be better than the original or improve upon it in some way, it’s just the studio’s shameless grab for money, and I’m done wasting my money and time on terrible reboots.
Have you seen Roots (2016), and what did you think of it? Please leave a comment.