Alex Haley’s “Roots”: Why The Remake Is Just As Important As The Original

“I don’t know why they’re remaking Roots. They’re only going to mess it up. I ain’t watchin’ it.” That’s the general response I received when asking people if they were excited about the remake before it aired back in 2016. I tried, time and time again, to convince them to give it a shot, but many already had their minds made up.

For what it’s worth, I understood their point and agreed, to some extent. Sometimes, you should leave well enough alone and to be honest, those were my thoughts when I first heard about it. But after additional thought, I knew something like this was worth watching; seeing for myself. And there was an added value.

For those who had never read the book, Alex Haley’s “Roots” took audiences on a wide-eyed, unexpected journey into the one subject no one wanted to talk about or remember: Slavery. Either you were ashamed to have come from slaves or hush-mouthed about possibly descending from those who owned them. “Roots” boasted an unforgettable cast of accomplished actors including John Amos, Lou Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Georg Stanford Brown, Maya Angelo, “Scatman” Crothers, Ed Asner, Sandy Duncan, Chuck Connors, Robert Reed and many other notable performers (while introducing Levar Burton as young Kunta Kinte). We all sat down in 1977 for 8 episodes with hands over mouths, tears in eyes, some smiles and even a few laughs as the story chronicled six generations of one family, spanning from 1750 to 1870, colonialism to reconstruction, beginning with the parents of Kunta Kinte.

Nothing was left untouched: Individuality & freedom in Africa, manhood training, abduction and the Middle Passage, the “breaking”of a man and making of a slave, the brutality of slavery, separation of families, emancipation and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and laws that created obstacles for freed slaves looking to earn a living during the Reconstruction Era. Everything that we never discussed in history class was now in our living rooms, right in our faces.

At the time of its release, it was the most-watched show in U.S television history, airing in over 50 countries. Yeah, it was that big.

But Alex Haley’s tale of his family beginnings did more than just tell a powerful story of family, pride and perseverance. It gave thousands, maybe millions, inspiration to research, sitting with their family elders to learn about their own beginnings. Their own roots. African Americans began to acknowledge and feel a greater connection to those before us who never set foot on American soil. In great numbers, we gave notice to the African, in “African American” (you can read more about that in my 5-part “Africa To America” and 2-part “Africa: More Than Just Hollywood’s Black Panther” series).

Not knowing what to expect, my reason to watch was the easy answer: It gives newer, younger audiences an opportunity to see the story (and undoubtedly with better make-up and production).

Following “Mandigo” (1975) and “Drum” (1976), Roots and its characters were the subject of discussion in schools, churches and families for many years, widely considered to be the foundation for many tales of slavery in America.

So here we were, almost 40 years and umteen “whip-a-nigger” movies later asking, “Why attempt a remake of a classic?”

Having seen both at least 5 times each in their entirety (no exaggeration), I can easily answer as I did before: it brought a story to new audiences that either hadn’t had a chance or lacked the desire to watch “an old 70s TV series”. With a larger budget for more authentic settings and costumes, the entire production just appears to be so much more appropriate for the modern era. And thankfully, it keeps to the original story-line enough to tell the tale to a new generation, all the while, mixing things up enough to keep it interesting for returning fans.

So yes, changes were made. Beginnings and endings of various characters, conversations, settings, etc. Kunta’s backstory was enhanced to give greater depth to his personality. There was also a different love interest before his abduction. It later included his involvement during the American Revolution (the same for “Chicken George” during the Civil War) with a deeper look into his relationship with Fiddler and how Kunta’s fighting spirit affected him.

As before, the newer project involved an extraordinary familiar cast including: Forest Whittaker, Anika Noni Rose, Derek Luke, Mekhi Phifer, (rapper) T.I., Laurence Fishburne, Matthew Goode, Jonathan Rhys Meyer, Shannon Lucio, Lane Garrison, James Purefoy and Anna Paquin among others. There was even a surprise cameo by (oops – can’t say that. If you’ve already watched it and didn’t catch it, email me at Zoot580@hotmail.com and I’ll tell you). The new version ramped things up by introducing an uncommonly “beautiful” cast of unknowns in that of Malachi Kirby (as Kunta), Rege-Jean Page, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Erica Tazel, Mandela Van Peeble (yes, Mario’s son) Nokuthula Ledwaba, Babs Olusanmokun and Emyri Crutchfield (teen Kizzy) & Saniyya Sidney (Kizzy, Age 6).

Finally, there is the standout performance by Simona Brown as new character (Jinna), Kunta’s first love, as I mentioned before. I must note that I found her character to be most intriguing and have been inspired to write a fictional continuation of her story after her appearance. To me, it begs telling and, if by some minor miracle it gets the attention of the producers and the network, I’d love to see her return to the role. I even sent her a message of my intentions and desire to see her star in it. Yeah, I have dreams…

For those who saw the remake, there were complaints of “that’s not what happened in Roots.” To that, I ask this: Who’s to say WHAT truly happened in ANY of it? The book has long since been widely debunked as more fiction than truth, or at least, an incredible embellishment. It’s obvious that the majority of the conversations and side events were fleshed out for dramatization purposes. In fact, many of the characters and situations were likely created to help progress the story and situations within:

  • Conversations above decks of the Lord Ligonier slave ship
  • Kunta’s relationship with Fanta
  • Chicken George’s relationship with Master Tom
  • Dr. Reynold’s love affair with his sister-in-law, which produced Missy-Ann
  • Slave girl Genelva’s seduction of Kunta to deceive and distract the overseer in order to escape with “Old Luther”.
  • Tom Harvey’s plan to mark the shoehorns of the horses he serviced to identify that members of the vigilante group the “Night Riders” (which is actually the true story of blacksmith Tom Good, who was killed for his method by the Ku Klux Klan).

There’s only so much that can be preserved in the “grapevine” of story-telling through the years. One could go so far as to even question if “Fiddler” truly existed. What people fail to realize is that Alex Haley originally intended for his work to be released as “faction”, a combination of historical research, oral tradition and invention. It was the publisher and the New York Times that released and classified it as non-fiction. Alex Haley himself even admitted that portions were inadvertently plagiarized from the 1967 novel, “The African”. But that’s neither here nor there. As I said before, with the remake, the essence was maintained and just like the original, it’s one helluva compelling story. So focus less on the authenticity of it and accept that fact that it breathes life and comprehension to an otherwise ignored and misunderstood topic in that of slavery.

Look people, I could go on and on about the subtle nuances, factuality and/or how beautiful each story is, despite the troubling and tragic moments. In the end, you’ll just have to see for yourself. One thing I will say without issuing any spoilers: the ending of the remake is remarkably glorious and brilliant. I’ve pulled it up on Hulu many times, just to watch the final scenes.

…and that’s it. My commentary about why you need to watch it. I was thinking about making this a two-part blog as I often do, with my traditional “Now That You’ve Seen It” follow-up. I still might, but for now, I just want to leave it here. I want you to watch it. I know I’m asking a bit much because it’s not like convincing you to watch a simple 2-hour movie. We’re talking 4 episodes here. But be honest. You don’t have any problem investing 13 hours into a single season of your favorite shows during your binge-watching nights, do you? Howzabout you take a chance on something I KNOW will stay on your mind for some time?

Something of value. Something to inspire…
Start a healthy dialogue…

Trust me, check it out.

Like what you read? Feel free to leave a comment in the space below.
Let me know what you’d like me to talk about in upcoming entries from Kenny’s Camera, Cooking & Crazy Confessions.
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