When the original Roots miniseries aired nearly four decades ago, it was unlike anything else on TV: an award-winning historical phenomenon (based on Alex Haley’s bestseller) that broke ratings records with an all-star cast. The story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants was the first honest, horrific TV depiction of slavery, making clear America’s foundation in white supremacy. How could a remake on a basic cable channel capture that same brutality? At a time when works like Underground, Birth Of A Nation, and 12 Years A Slave have expanded on the realities of slavery, why did we need a Roots remake in 2016?
So much is said about the historical importance and awards of the original Roots, its downfalls are often overlooked. The images of Africa appear incredibly false with no basis in reality, as though someone just decided lots of trees and monkeys would get the point across. The biggest fault, however, was the series’ insistence on centering narratives around the white captors and masters. Almost as soon as we’re introduced to Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton), we meet Captain Davies (Edward Asner). Davies arrives in Gambia with a ship full of chains, but the show wants us to know he has second thoughts about the whole thing. He’s a Christian, he’s never done this before, and he doesn’t even rape the slaves, despite the insistence of his second mate. In 1977, that was good to know. Today, that message feels hollow, as it falls far short of making up for the atrocities that would still occur.
A far more intriguing story would center on Kunta Kinte, what he was forced to leave behind, what his entire culture lost, and how his experiences would shape future generations—this story can now be told. At a time when showrunners no longer need to bow to the majority, this is where the remake of Roots proves itself as completely necessary. The new series doesn’t attempt to soften the image of the captors, overseers, or masters. Instead, the pain they inflict is absolute; gray areas are removed. The remake doesn’t waste the beginning of the series pandering to Captain Davies’ hesitance; it gives us beautiful, sweeping, realistic images of true African culture, and a larger part of the narrative focuses on Kunta’s time in Africa. Kunta’s fearlessness and dedication to his tribe are far more powerful than the 1977 character, who was more sweet and childish at the outset than daring. The remake shows us the hidden experiences that the original only hinted at. These experiences are difficult to watch even today.
The narrative of the original catered to white audiences by instilling a clear “not all white people” message throughout the story, focusing on Captain Davies or George (Brad Davis) and Martha (Lane Binkley), the poor white couple taken in by slaves. The remake has no patience for this. Captain Davies is barely mentioned. George and Martha aren’t even characters. In place of their story, which often distracted from the black experience in the original, the remake gives us Nancy Holt (Anna Paquin). Nancy is married to a Southern general, but is secretly a spy for the North. She isn’t presented as a white savior or celebrated for believing slavery is wrong. Instead, the story focuses on Tom (Sedale Threatt Jr.) and another new character, Jerusalem (Mekhi Phifer), a fellow undercover spy masquerading as a slave. Nancy asks them to assist her, but they have the most to lose if her plan to steal army coordinates doesn’t work. The audience sees Tom struggle with the choice, until his wife is raped by an overseer and he’s driven to action. Because the remake focuses on the consequences Tom could face and how carefully he has lived his life until his wife’s rape, the moment when he chooses to help the abolitionists is incredibly moving. This narrative shift offers a more nuanced view of Tom than the original, where he drowns the man who attacks his wife and spends a large portion of the series evading suspicion.
Expanding on the pre-America portion of the story makes it clear that this version of Roots isn’t going to concern itself with the motivations of those who enslaved our protagonists. It chooses instead to focus on the cultural traditions and coping mechanisms that would be inherited throughout generations of black families. The remake does this by constantly moving forward. It doesn’t linger on the privilege of finality or goodbyes. The pace of the remake is slow and deliberate. Most of Tom’s storylines in the original are gone; instead the remake focuses on the burden he’s carried since his father was taken away from him. It’s a harder story to watch than the previous version, which offers some closure.
After Kunta’s abduction in the 1977 Roots, his family finds his necklace and realizes slavers have taken him. The remake is more realistic. Kunta Kinte doesn’t know if his family ever finds out the truth, and neither does the audience, as his parents only return in flashbacks or dream sequences. The original series brings Kunta’s daughter Kizzy back to her childhood plantation so that she can learn that her father has died and her mother was sold. The remake recognizes that this closure was rare and doesn’t give it to us. Kizzy moves on with her life, and the importance of carrying on her father’s traditions is even clearer.
The unease of unclear answers and the impact of that absence carries itself throughout the new series. The weight of those who are missing—the slaves who died in transit, the lost or sold family members—takes the place of a white-centered narrative. When closure does happen, it’s all the more joyous.
The remake also favors generational connection over justice. While retribution isn’t exactly served in the original, moments like Kizzy spitting into Missy Anne’s drink when she denies their previous friendship or Tom drowning Jemmy after he attempts to rape his wife come close. But these aren’t the main plotlines in the series. When Kizzy has spent a lifetime losing family members and friends, her relationship with Missy Anne doesn’t demand closure. The remake recognizes this and removes these moments completely. The audience is drawn to how Kizzy, Kunta, Tom, and Chicken George must live their lives after loss, not their anger toward that loss.
That’s why the remake is worth it. In a new age of black storytelling—an age where a complexity of black experiences can be told—it’s fitting that Roots should reflect this. The new version builds upon a space created by 12 Years A Slave and Birth Of A Nation to create a Roots narrative free from the desire to comfort or entertain white audiences. The original Roots appeared focused on excusing the actions of some white people and allowing minor retribution. The remake simply wants to focus on the story of a family, what happened to them, and how they were able to survive against these life-threatening and soul-crushing obstacles, keeping their heritage intact for future generations.