Airtime: Monday, May 30 to Thursday, June 2 at 9PM on History Channel
Episode: Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Tweetable Takeaway: The powerful saga of Kunta Kinte returns with History’s #Roots
Like any kid, there are certain cultural things I picked up from my mother and others that I picked up from my father. Sitting down and watching 1977’s Roots was definitely a mom-spurred project, and yet my dad’s background also played a role in how I experienced it. My mom is black American. My dad is Nigerian and our family traveled to the country and other parts of Africa a number of times when I was growing up. I visited Eredo, a 1000+ year old system of walls in southwestern Nigeria. I ate piping hot joloff rice, a recipe which traveled from Nigeria, to New York, and now Los Angeles where I whip it up. Roots is about that connection to Africa, and beyond, and thanks to both of my parents I have that connection, know that history, and am the better for it.
I never thought I’d be writing about ROOTS as it played out on television over several days like the seminal 1977 original miniseries did. History Channel’s Roots, which began on May 30 and ends on June 2, attempts to reboot the miniseries for a new generation. “Night One” traces Kunta Kinte’s (Malachi Kirby) beginnings in West Africa, his kidnapping, the harrowing Middle Passage, and his initial months in Virginia. The first section in West Africa feels much richer this time, not only because of production values but because of research. We know much more about that world than we did in the 1970s, and we also know more about the true scale of the Middle Passage.
We follow Kunta Kinte’s full life as part of the Mandinka tribe. He comes of age with other young men away from his vibrant port city of Juffure. The young men go on a rite of passage, led by their elders including Kunta’s Uncle Silla (Derek Luke). Kunta shows good fighting skills and leadership qualities, but he’s also impetuous and hot-headed. He’s forced to ride a horse while his hands are tied up, and later uses a javelin on a boat to defend himself. Kunta is also smitten with a young woman who lives in Juffure. When the young men return, Kunta feels restless. He wants to go study in Timbuktu but soon falls into the hands of a rival family who sells him to the English.
The next section, the Middle Passage, is probably the hardest section to get through on the first night. In the belly of the slave ship, Kunta cries out to his Uncle Silla, who also was captured (and wounded). Every once in a while, the enslaved men are brought up to the deck where the English douse water on them and force them to be active. The men refuse to dance to English music but soon, with the help of enslaved women who are kept separately, they all move to the rhythm of their own music. Not only that, but the music helps them talk in code, and soon a plan of insurrection is afoot. Kunta and the slaves fight valiantly but ultimately the mutiny fails. Kunta’s Uncle Silla is killed as an example.
Kunta arrives in Virginia and is sold to John Waller. The year is 1765, pre-Revolutionary war. The resistance and resilience that Kunta displayed at sea continues in the Americas. He’s taken under the wing of Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), a slave with a knack for playing music. Fiddler enjoys some degree of autonomy because of Waller’s wife, who considers herself benevolent and forward-thinking. Fiddler tries to get Kunta to accept his new station in life (and his new name of Toby), and yet is also moved by Kunta’s ties to the Mandinka, a tribe from which Fiddler’s ancestors might hail. Kunta runs but ultimately is caught, bringing night one to a tragic conclusion.
I felt that once Kunta arrived in the Americas, Roots lost a bit of steam. Apart from Fiddler, Kunta doesn’t really interact with any of the other slaves in the Waller plantation. It started to feel one note and I also found it a bit incredible that the Wallers trusted in Fiddler’s patient approach with Kunta for so long, even though it wasn’t working. As well, some of the language that Fiddler and others used to describe “Africa” felt heavy-handed and dated, like it belonged in the 1970s, an important era where a generation of black Americans made a conscious effort to connect with the continent. I believe a better version of this story would simply show Kunta’s beginnings in Africa, and trust the audience to get what that means without needing to harken back to it all the time.
Ultimately, unlike when Roots first came out, 2016 happens to be a moment with several other prominent narratives about slavery. Between 12 Years A Slave, Underground, and Django Unchained, not to mention other stories that deal with race in a nuanced way like The Knick, the bar has really been raised to provide something new. For instance, the class insecurity that the Waller plantation’s white overseer feels is a key insight, but many of the other stories I mentioned also make that same point and more powerfully. It’s true, that’s not exactly Roots‘ fault. And the irony also is that the original series helped pave the way for these other stories. But I’m hoping that as the nights go by Roots offers up something new so that a new generation can be moved like I was growing up.
Ade Adeniji | Contributor