I ran into Bree Newsome last week, at a White House event centered around the History Channel’s new adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. The Charlotte-based artist is perhaps better known for an act of civil disobedience, scaling a flagpole in front of South Carolina’s capitol last summer to cut down the Confederate flag when politicians moved too slowly. But Newsome’s art bleeds into her activism, and vice versa. When she arrived at the screening room, she had her filmmaker hat on. And she was skeptical.
“Anytime there’s a remake of a classic, I’m always like, ugh,” Newsome told MTV News. But after seeing the first of four parts of the new Roots, scheduled to start airing on Memorial Day, Newsome said she felt she hadn’t watched a remake at all. “Clearly I’m watching the same story,” she said, “but it’s told in a very different way.”
That’s for sure. Unlike in the 1977 version starring LeVar Burton, you see graphic images of bodies blown apart and an arm amputated. You see a man chained in a slave ship, forced to lie on his back alongside his fellow kidnapped Africans, vomit all over his face. The brutality of the images evokes other recent stories about slavery seen on our screens, from 12 Years a Slave to the television series Underground. But since we have those, plus a new film about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion coming up in the fall, did we need a new Roots at all?
If you’re judging solely by how the original looks, yes. The version that’s now nearly 40 years old hasn’t aged well. The violence and racism it depicts are still visceral, but its sets and stilted dialogue feel like someone turned a camera on a stage play. It’s regarded, rightfully, as a groundbreaking classic, bringing an Afrocentric slavery narrative into a lot of white living rooms. But the presentation clearly could have used an update.
Aesthetics aside, I’d argue that this new version is necessary for reasons having nothing to do with shelf life. For one, we simply know more about the history of that period than we did 40 years ago, so slavery can now be more accurately depicted. (There are several historical questions about Haley’s original novel, for instance.) But just as importantly, we need a Roots that can make that story accessible to a younger audience. That this new version accomplishes that is no accident: We learned at the White House event that the teenage son of executive producer Mark Wolper told him that he couldn’t relate to the original Roots; it didn’t speak to him. That had to sting, since it was Wolper’s own father who executive-produced the 1977 miniseries. After that, Wolper set out to retell the story.
It’s likely why, unlike most slave narratives we see in American film, you see more of our hero, Kunta Kinte, as a young Mandinka warrior in the Gambia. He’s recognizable to American audiences despite the African landscape: He's a teenager who thinks he’s more mature than he is, in love with the girl next door. (Kunta is also full of dreams; the new Roots has added a scene in which he expresses a desire to attend a university.) And once he is enslaved in America, you see Kunta’s rebellious streak in a white-dominated context. It doesn’t take much, as you’re watching the film, to draw a straight line from there to our current Black Lives Matter era, one driven by the passions — and deaths — of black men, women, and children.
“[The 1977 version] emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement,” Newsome said after the screening. “It’s still relevant in 2016 for the exact same reasons.” She added that the film addressed the core cause of our contemporary problems. “It’s not just about race, it’s also about economics, it’s about power dynamics, it’s about all these things that manifest today in different ways. But the root of it all is chattel slavery. I want [Roots] to be relevant in the same way a Holocaust film is relevant, so that we don’t repeat the past.”
The new Roots forces you, quite explicitly, to hear the echoes of slavery in our present time. Watching as a black man who has never known his true African heritage, I was awestruck watching Forest Whitaker’s Fiddler, a violin-playing house slave at a Virginia plantation, recognize a melody that Kunta hums. It sounds to Fiddler like something his African-born grandmother used to sing, but history and time had eroded his recollection of what the song sounded like. Later, Fiddler finds it again in his memory, that pathway to his past.
“If we don’t understand the moments that we were in chains, we’ll never fully understand what freedom is,” author Joshua DuBois told MTV News. DuBois once headed President Obama’s office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; his consulting firm was part of the team that worked on the film. “Young people need to know that our story did not start in chains, nor is it defined by pain.”
True, but you see that pain dealt out by slave masters and overseers in this new version. That, too, is an argument for the necessity of a new telling of this story. White viewers will hopefully watch this not just recognizing the black pain we still see today, but the white cruelty that hasn’t gone out of fashion. Malachi Kirby, the 27-year-old actor who portrays Kunta, said in a phone interview that a white castmate tearfully apologized to him profusely after shooting a scene that called for him to abuse Kirby. “I said to him that he had nothing to apologize for,” Kirby told MTV News. “He would’ve had something to apologize for if he didn’t tell the truth, if he didn’t do what he needed to do” in the scene. Kirby said that he hoped people could watch the film to help them find a way to move forward productively.
Kirby noted that Roots also digs into and exposes some deep-seated issues concerning masculinity. Recently, he heard a recording of a young African-American boy in Atlanta crying after he’d attended a Roots screening. The boy was 11 or 12, and he’d described himself as someone who usually didn’t show emotion. “It brought to mind that there are so many young boys, in general, who are raised not to express themselves emotionally, that it’s weakness to have emotions,” Kirby said. "And, for me, I feel this can be a liberating experience to understand the strength in self-expression, and how important it is to know who you truly are.”
Many grasp this, but younger audiences in particular must learn that we black folks here today are descended from the people who endured all this and lived. We are the children of the survivors.
Sometimes, art can help us remember that. The famous scene that drives that point home occurs near the end of the first episode, when Kunta is whipped to within an inch of his life because he refuses to call himself “Toby,” the name given to him by his slave masters. It’s far more explicit than the 1977 version. Kunta is lashed 30 times; I counted. You see his tears, hear his cries, and see the flesh hanging off of his bloodied back. After he finally utters “Toby,” barely loud enough to hear, Fiddler nurses his wounds. He tells Kunta, “This ain’t your home. But it’s where you gotta be.” I can’t think of many better ways to describe how black life was in America back then, and for some, how it is even now.