History

Roots And Resistance

This excellent update of the iconic miniseries presents a crucial story that’s still not told enough

Snoop Dogg called for an informal boycott of the new Roots (History) miniseries earlier this week in an Instagram video. “They going to just keep beating that shit into our heads as to how they did us, huh?" he spat in disgust. "They just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. ... I ain't watching that shit and I advise you motherfuckers as real niggas like myself: fuck them television shows.”

The rap legend thus joined the rising tide of black voices to declare their slavery-movie fatigue. Despite the importance of remembering the past, it’s understandable, of course, to want to learn or look back on history outside of the entertainment industry. And Snoop Dogg is right to encourage an alternative: “a motherfucking series about the success that black folks is having [in the modern age] ... how we live and how we inspire people today.” Diversity in film and television is still closer to an ideal than a reality, and, as many have noted, black-led prestige projects like 12 Years a Slave, Selma, and Precious tend to rely on the spectacle of black suffering.

But Snoop Dogg is also flat wrong about Roots, which ended its miniseries run Thursday night, being about “how they did [African Americans].” Spanning four generations and half of this country’s history (from 1750 to around 1870), the adaptation of Alex Haley’s family saga is obviously about exploitation and victimization at the cruelest extreme, but the throughlines in the stories of captive Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), his daughter Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose), her son George (standout Regé-Jean Page), and his son Tom (Sedale Threatt, Jr.) are resistance and resilience, with a dash of (probably unrealistic) revenge. As a teaching tool, Roots is candid about the daily terror and torture that made up life under the whip. But as a drama, it earns its considerable tension, heroism, and empathy by revealing how slaves fought to retain their humanity and dignity in a society that tried to violently stamp them out every day.

Resistance, perhaps even more than pain, is how we best relate to the extended Kinte family as fellow human beings. There are some decrees that can’t be thwarted: Each generation is wrenched from their parents, for example, and each time, it’s devastating. Roots perhaps has to didactically explain why more slaves didn’t run away or fight back. But in each slave’s decisions and calculations, we can see logic, strategy, compassion, culture, and a battle for agency, under whatever bitterly tight constraints. Kunta attempts to flee his Virginia plantation many, many times, but the other field hands generally don’t because they’re acutely aware that their friends and loved ones would be punished for their escape. Brocade-jacketed violin prodigy Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) signals to Kunta a safe hour to run away via musical cues that go unnoticed by most of the whites on the plantation. “Chicken George” ingratiates himself into his father/master’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) good graces not only by producing the strongest fighting cocks around, but also by providing a “show” to the white gamblers around them. Each act of resistance is thrilling and argues for the importance of this more graphic, better-acted, and better-written update.

Less successful, at least for the 21st century, are the more dated elements of the 1976 source material. Though it’s important to acknowledge the fully developed cultures of West African peoples upon capture, the recurring visions of Kunta’s father feel like a relic of ’70s Afrocentricity. Also retro is its focus on the robbed masculinity of black men. It’s a valid complaint, of course, and much of the Black Power movement of Haley's era was dedicated to the remasculinization of African American males. But I also really didn’t want to watch a female being raped in order to humiliate, motivate, and narratively spur a man close to her (again), because we should really be over fridging women by this point.

Like the still-shattering scene in which Kunta is whipped until he adopts his slave name, we all think we know what life in bondage looks like, whether we’ve seen it or not. Roots reminds us, yet again, that the wrists and ankles of slaves were in chains, but their minds were not. Snoop Dogg doesn’t have to watch, but he’s missing out on a crucial and still under-told story of black resistance.


VMAs 2017