Roots is a four-part miniseries written by Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, Alison McDonald, and Charles Murray; directed by Bruce Beresford, Thomas Carter, Phillip Noyce, and Mario Van Peebles; and produced by the History Channel. The series is a remake of a 1977 ABC miniseries of the same name, which was based on the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley.
The first episode begins with Kunta Kinte, played by Malachi Kirby, training to become a warrior for his tribe in Africa. After he finishes his training, he is captured by a rival tribe, sold into slavery, and sent to America. There he begins work on a plantation. He starts off resistant to slavery, not responding to the name his owners gave him and attempting to run away continually. Eventually, Kunta settles into life as a slave, marries, and has a daughter he names Kizzy. Kizzy, played by Anika Noni Rose, grows up as a friend of her owner’s daughter but is sold when she tries to escape with her lover. Her new owner, a poor chicken fighter named Tom Lea, rapes Kizzy until she becomes pregnant with his child. This child, named George and portrayed by Regè-Jean Page, becomes Tom’s chicken trainer, a job he is naturally gifted in. He fights Tom’s chickens until they lose a large fight and Tom has to lend George to England to cover his debts. Upon George’s return to America, he and his family participate in the Civil War. They gain their freedom and leave plantation life forever.
Historical And Cultural Context
Roots addresses many historic events, including the Atlantic Slave trade, slavery as a whole, the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and Reconstruction. The show starts in Africa and shows how people became slaves in the first place. Slavery was common in many African tribes before the English ever set foot on the continent. They would use people from other tribes for labor, treating them as “a bunch of stupid and backward people, or confided they were fit only for manual labor that required strong arms (Hartman 154).” They believed these prisoners were not good enough to be citizens, not because of race, but because of tribal affiliation. When the English discovered this, they began to offer clothing, weapons, liquor, and jewelry for these slaves. These goods convinced many tribes to begin trading with the English as they could increase their quality of life with these luxuries (Hartman 160). As this practice continued, a few tribes got overly greedy and began to capture any person they could find to sell to the English, even people from friendly tribes, as Kunta Kinte was a part of. Slaves were then packed into ships and sent to the Americas, as shown in Figure 1.
Through the generations of Roots, all the horrors of slavery were shown. Kunta Kinte was renamed as soon as he arrives at a plantation and is forced to accept that way as a way to remove his identity. After he tries to escape several times, his toes are cut off to slow him down if he tries again. Lashings were commonplace, with slave drivers stopping the entire plantation to watch. When Kizzy is sold, she was raped daily without being able to fight back. During wartime, the British used slaves as human shields to block the bullets of the Americans to protect the more deserving British soldiers. In the Civil War, Confederate soldiers “abruptly ended cease-fire when they realized that black Union troops had replaced white ones (Alan).” They would murder surrendering African American soldiers and prisoners of war (Figure 2), fearing free blacks would lead to rape and murder (Alan). After the Civil War, sharecropping became the primary job for former slaves, which was just another way to legalize slavery by paying the workers just enough to live off, but not enough to save up for land of their own. The Kinte Family had to leave this life because it was just as horrible as slavery, so they moved west to a state that hopefully was free of the effects of slavery.
The novel Roots came out after Alex Haley traced his family tree back to Africa and decided he needed to tell the story of his African warrior ancestor. The book came out in a time where people were ashamed to admit they were the descendants of slaves. They wanted to hide their past. Haley felt that this past should be celebrated for the perseverance and strength many slaves showed during their captivity. The first miniseries was released in 1977 to try to send this message to a mainstream audience. With 130 million people watching, Haley accomplished his task and helped create a generation that is proud of their ancestors. Forty years later, this generation has grown up, meaning a new generation is growing up, one that needs to hear this same message so that the lives of slaves are never forgotten.
Themes and Style
Family and identity are the major themes developed throughout Roots, themes that Kunta holds to survive from the traumatic experiences as a slave. Growing up in the Mandinka tribe, Kunta has a great sense of pride in his ancestry and deep love toward his family that he refuses to be constrained by slave traders and his white owner. Having his family as support and belief, he is able to take out the courage to endure pain and attempt escaping several times. For example, in the scene of the uprising on the slave ship, he prays to his parents: “Guide me, Father. Be with me, Mother.” Later, before another attempt of his to run away from the plantation, he prays to his father again: “Father…Lead me back to you.” The hope of reuniting with his family has allowed him to fight against his fate. Dee Parmer Woodter, The author of “African-American Genealogy,” claims that Roots helps African-American families want to follow their lineages the way Haley did. Many African-American families have stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, stories like the ones that inspired Haley to write Roots, of African warriors and strong ancestors. Seeing the strong bond between Kunta and his family made African-Americans want to learn about their lineage and family history and know what people they belong to. Because of Roots, this seems possible for the first time: people can learn about where they came from, learning stories about their ancestors, stories that affect their lives.
The theme of identity is demonstrated in the iconic whipping scene after another of Kunta’s escape attempt (Figure 3). Kunta, after being caught by an overseer, is whipped over his name until he accepts his identity as the slave “Toby.” However, after the whipping, Fiddler reassures Kunta’s identity as a Mandinka warrior and tells him to “keep his true name inside,” no matter what the white slave owners call him. As a frictional figure, the portrayal of Kunta does not only show the horrendous experiences all of the slaves endured but demonstrates the spirit of African American and his courage to fight, attempting escape many times. While Roots is not completely historically accurate, it has attracted the viewers’ attention to reconsider their relationship with the past. By connecting to slavery, a topic that some people nowadays find outdated or shameful to bring up, African Americans are inspired to find their own identities and pride of ancestry as their ancestors have once fought for identity and freedom, just as Kunta portrays in Roots, that leads to better today.
Throughout Roots, “name” plays an essential role in symbolizing one’s identity, as all of the slaves are renamed on the plantation and forced to abandon the real names given by their parents. This is explicitly demonstrated in the aesthetic design of Root’s TV posters in which every single poster has the portrait of a character from Roots, with his or her name written in gold on his or her face (Figure 4). It is worth-noting that Kunta is the only character that uses his real name “Kunta” on his face instead of his slave name “Toby.” The design of the posters further reveals Kunta’s character and the theme of identity: you are what you identify yourself as. For Kunta, keeping his identity outweighs physical pain that he is able to endure through the countless whipping, even when the other slaves give up their names. From the posters, it shows that Roots also encourages its audience to search for the meaning in his or her life. By embracing the history and understanding where they came from, people will be able to learn who they are.
The style of Roots reveals the horrendous reality of slavery and invokes a sense of discomfort to the viewer as the scenes presented are so realistic, detailed, and even heartbreakingly violent. The making of Roots focuses on realistic depictions of suffering that intend to cause an emotional appeal to the viewer and reminds African Americans today not to forget their identities, even under painful circumstances.
The original Roots was a huge success in 1977 as it won a Golden Globe Award, nine Primetime Emmy Awards, and still holds a record of the second-most watched TV series in U.S. television history. Its popularity created a cultural phenomenon that encouraged more people to confront and engage with the past and slavery. However, when the series was announced to be remade and aired in 2016, the questions arose: Why remake Roots? Why care about slavery today? In W. Kamau Bell’s interview of actor LeVar Burton, who portrayed Kunta Kinte in the 1977 Roots, Burton argues that the vestiges of slavery have been institutionalized in American culture that one can neither deny nor escape. “So to move forward as a nation, we must not try to ameliorate the past, but embrace it.” Burton emphasizes that African American is not the only group to confront slavery. Instead, even those people who are not descended from slaves should watch and find some meanings from the series as racism still exists in the afterlives of slavery. At the end of the interview, Burton concludes, “This is our common story. And whether you feel like it has any relevance or meaning to you, the real truth is that it does. If you are part of the fabric of America, this is your story, too.”
Stephane Dunn, an associate professor at Morehouse College, further suggests that a lot of Americans still remember their childhood experiences of watching the original series, and the new Roots allows the new generation to find their identity and reconsider the relationship between themselves and the past. This relates to Saidiya Hartman’s Lose your mother: a Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route in which she traces the history of the Atlantic slave trade and attempts to find her own identity along with her research on slavery as she visited Ghana. She admits the fact that most African Americans are ashamed of the past. They want to forget about slavery, the time when they “lose their mother” and were manipulated by slave owners. By retracing the slave trade routes, Hartman argues that America has not healed the scars of slavery, but showing signs of hope when people accept and embrace the history and strive for a better future. Thomas Edge, a professor of Ethnic Studies at Bowling Green State University, further argues that the original novel and TV miniseries Roots made an impact to the society by helping African Americans accept that they are descendants of slaves. It also reconnected children who had not experienced racial prejudice like their parents had through segregation and slavery before that. It shows the pains of slavery in very real imagery and calls people who do not feel the need to think about their ancestors back to Africa.
While some general public feel unsure about the remake Roots and bringing up slavery as a topic today, critics and professionals believe that by watching the remake Roots and embracing the past, people are able to form a strong bond with ancestry, retain hope, and find their own identities that motivates them to strive for a better world.
Alan. “Confederate Treatment of a Southern Black Union Soldier.” American Civil War Forums, 2 Nov. 2013, civilwartalk.com/threads/confederate-treatment-of-a-southern-black-union-soldier.91522/.
Bell, W. Kamau. “The star of the original “Roots” explains why the remake is must-Watch television.” Mother Jones, Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress, 23 June 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/media/2016/05/history-roots-2016-remake-levar-burton-kamau-bell/.
Dunn, Stephane. “Why the Roots Remake Is So Important.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 29 May 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/05/why-the-roots-remake-is-so-important/484661/.
Edge, Thomas. “‘Who Do You Think You Are?’: Examining the African-American Experience in Slavery and Freedom through Family History Television.” Journal of American Culture, vol. 40, no. 4, Dec. 2017, pp. 341-354. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/jacc.12806.
Hartman, Saidiya V. Lose your mother: a journey along the Atlantic slave route. Reprint ed., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
Woodtor, Dee Parmer. “African-American Genealogy.” American Visions, vol. 8, no. 6, Dec93/Jan94, p. 20. EBSCOhost, prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/ login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9403292713&site=ehost-live.
Haley, Alex. Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Doubleday, 1976.
Mechanic, Michael. “Here’s what a “Roots” expert thinks of the new “Roots”.” Mother Jones, 23 June 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/media/2016/05/new-history-roots-recap-episode-1/.
Othow, Helen Chavis. “‘ROOTS’ AND THE HEROIC SEARCH FOR IDENTITY.” CLA Journal, vol. 26, no. 3, 1983, pp. 311–324. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44329481.
Temple, Christel N. “Strategies for Cultural Renewal in an American-Based Version of African Globalism.” Journal of Black Studies, vol.
Roots, The Remake Roots, TV miniseries, Alex Haley, Identity, Ancestry, African American, Slavery, Kunta Kinte, Family