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HISTORY Channel’s ‘Roots’ Is a Lush & Exemplary Re-Imagining of the Iconic Saga

May 29, 2016

Forty-years ago Alex Haley’s “Roots” was presented on the small screen and captivated a nation. The immensely popular and moving story garnered 80 million viewers a night when it first aired in January of 1977. That year it was nominated for thirty-five Emmys. Therefore, when I first heard that “Roots” was being rebooted, I rolled my eyes. We are at a point when we are constantly being beaten down by the same stories playing in an endless loop over and over again. And yet, from the moment the thriving beauty of Juffure, Gambia was revealed in 2016’s “Roots”, I knew this would be something worthwhile.

HISTORY Channel’s “Roots” reboot is something we need right now. In the midst of the tumultuous political climate in this nation, and of the Black Lives Matters movement, it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come. Paying homage to the original series while embracing this gorgeously lush re-imagining, invites an entirely new generation to experience the phenomenal family saga. I am not so naive to assume that 2016’s “Roots” will even begin to touch the impact of the original series, however, this contemporary project is much more volatile and assertive than the 1977 saga could have ever hoped to be.

Last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had the opportunity to screen the first episode of the “Roots” reboot. “Roots” is a story of family, identity and resilience English actor Malachi Kirby gives an awe-inspiring breathtaking performance as the strong-willed Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte, who is cruelly ripped from his picturesque Gambian village and sold into slavery. So different from LeVar Burton’s gripping performance, Kirby’s Kunta is unparalleled on his own. What sets this project apart from the original series, is the time we spend in Gambia, from Kunta’s coming-of–age ceremony, to his flirtations with a village girl, Kirby leaves you captivated from the first moment he appears on screen. The perspectives of white characters are also wholly erased here.

As I’ve stated previously, as I did upon reviewing WGN America’s “Underground”, I don’t understand the push-back against slave narratives. Should there be a plethora of other stories surrounding all facets of Black life? Of course. However, slave stories will always remain impactful, relevant and needed. After all, if we do not know our history and engage with it no matter how painful it might be, we are doomed as a nation to repeat it. Make no mistake; “Roots” is a lot to take in, in the same way that “12 Years Of Slave” left me with a lingering agony after viewing it. However, I can say that it is a worthy, lush and exemplary retelling of an American classic.

After screening the first two hours of “Roots”, executive producers Mark Wolper and Will Packer as well as cast members Malachi Kirby (Kunta Kinte), Regé-Jean Page (Chicken George), Erica Tazel (Matilda) and costume designer Ruth Carter chatted with the Tribeca Film Festival audience about the project. Here is what they said about re-imagining “Roots”.

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Image: History Channel