Entertainment

The New 'Roots' Proves That Slave Narratives Are Still Important

The reboot of the seminal TV classic doesn't break new ground the way its predecessor did, but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile.

by Brandon Harris
15 June 2016, 4:00am

Like many people, I issued a audible sigh when word got out that Roots, the seminal miniseries based on Alex Haley's 1976 novel, was being remade. The slave-movie phenomenon that has gripped Hollywood of late has led many to develop slave-movie fatigue. Cable-news flakey Roland Martin's comical dustup with Snoop Doggy Dogg was just the tip of the iceberg. In barbershops and Kappa socials, blacks talk about wanting images of the lives they lead everyday. Also, doesn't the 1977 original stand on its own? Does the addition of gratuitous violence and advances in filmmaking and storytelling make it better?

In the History Channel reboot, Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) comes of age on the screen as he transitions into Mandinka manhood in 18th-century Gambia. Few American viewers who encounter these idyllic scenes know that at the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, upward of one in six captured human beings sent to America originated from the Mandinka ethnic group. Perhaps a few more have gleaned, from their experience of being Americans, that in order for American slavery to be successful, the systematic destruction of a coherent black African personhood was imperative.

The struggle between personhood and slavery culminates in the destruction of names. Perhaps the most gripping scene in episode one is when Kunta Kinte is forced to accept the name Toby. Kirby, like LeVar Burton before him, captivates the audience as he resists being stripped of his name—the very thing that connects him to his people and to a place he will never live to see again—while being savagely whipped. (Burton is a co-executive producer on the new show.)

Only after intervention by Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), Kunta's handler, does he realize that acceptance of his new name—and by default his new condition—is imperative to his survival. This dramatization underscores one of the more unfortunate aspects of American slavery. African Americans often find gaps in their respective quests for their roots due to the fact that American slaveholders knew that in order to create a permanent, bonded class of non-citizens, it was necessary to forcibly sever their cultural ties to Africa. To this day, many African Americans still carry the names of their former masters.

Africa's continued exploitation doesn't get interrogated by the international mainstream media.

Roots 2.0 does have its foibles, not unlike its predecessor. In the original television miniseries, Kinte is captured on the beach by a white guy and two black kidnappers. Statistically speaking, it probably didn't go down that way at all. The new show accurately points out that the slave trade did exist on the African continent before Europeans arrived. The arrival of Europeans industrialized the trade by creating a hemisphere-size market for human beings. As such, Kinte is corralled by opportunistic members of a neighboring tribe during a raid. They trade Kinte, along with scores of others, is subsequently traded for two cases of guns and ammunition before being branded and loaded onto a ship bound for Annapolis, Maryland.

Ironically, the West's relationship with the African continent has changed little. But now, instead of trafficking in humans, dictatorships are propped up in an effort to guarantee the uninterrupted flow of valuable natural resources. The occasional brave documentary film, such as Austrian-born Hubert Sauper's We Come as Friends, points this out, as well as how countries in the East, like China, are no better at treating their darker treated equitably. But mostly Africa's continued exploitation doesn't get interrogated by the international mainstream media. The publics that these organizations serve just don't give a shit.

Suffice it to say, aside from some historical adjustments and a deeper look into the all-important Mandinka credo that Kinte carries with him and inculcates into his descendants, the remake does not shed new light on Haley's work and doesn't particularly break new ground, remaining faithful to novel in ways the original didn't, while updating the violence to our post-12 Years a Slave, pre-Birth of a Nation moment. The original miniseries was groundbreaking because it placed American slavery in front of the American audience in a way that had never before been attempted. Since 1977, American audiences have been exposed to countless slave movies, and the shock value has, for better or worse, worn off, I think—perhaps most whites just don't think about this stuff at all. I'm never quite sure.

What Alex Haley managed to do in writing Roots was to put a face and a name on the faceless and the nameless. Perhaps this is what provokes the discomfort and the criticism of Roots in some quarters—the truthfulness of Haley's narrative, which he claimed was drawn from a real family saga, was challenged time and again in its era. But as long as the Africans purchased, packaged, and shipped by European and American merchants are trapped in obscurity, a safe distance from the repugnant nature of slavery is possible. Roots removes this obscurity, placing the audience within dangerous proximity to the truth. The series asks them to contemplate what, in this country, was a birthright to the white population for more than 200 years: domination of the black body. Haley empowered a generation of African Americans by showing us all these painful truths, helping many forge a lasting bond between them and their ancestors. In the case of this latest adaptation, perhaps the ends justify the means.

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