History Channel’s Roots: Your Name Is Your Shield

We follow Kunte Kinte (Malachi Kirby) and his descendents on a journey through time about how each generation is in debt to its predecessor and to the man who started it all with his tall tales of Africa.

Kunta Kinte is the son of Omoro and Binte Kinte from Juffure, a tribal city in The Gambia. We follow Kunta  as a child and then a young man where he’s kidnapped by his own people and sold to white Englishmen. These Englishmen are slavers, who would trade guns for human flesh to the locals. That’s something that has been omitted from numerous adaptations of the slave trade, that black people sold their own into slavery. As somebody who’s ethnic origin is from the West Indies, my ancestors are highly likely to have been slaves. My family made sure that I knew what slavery was. As soon as I was old enough to understand, my family made sure I knew where I came from and I watched the orignal Roots (1977) for the first time at nine years old. I’ve found that we live in this culture of ignorance and that my own people are more oblivious to slavery than I first thought.

In this movement of remakes and constant sequels, I was not surprised that Roots was getting a remake. But this remake is necessary, now more than ever because despite what people say, racism is still around and subjects like slavery are a taboo topic. In school, I was silenced for talking about slavery when we learned about the British Empire. The colonizing of the Caribbean was slavery, so why do people avoid the topic like the plague? As with most issues, Britain pretends they don’t exist by sweeping them under the rug. Slavery is probably the worst instance of human trafficking in history and an unforgivable crime against humanity.

The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage

Is the remaking of Roots really needed? Yes it is. We’re in this time of constant reboots and rehashes of classics and most people start to get agitated when they hear the word “remake”. This version of Roots won’t have the same effect on audiences that the original did, but things like this are necessary in an industry that is packed up full of comic book movies, highly praised fantasy dramas and Netflix Original series taking the world by storm. Hollywood seems hellbent on making money and re-imagining old ideas rather than telling stories that really mean something. Roots (2016) was a four night event that started on May 30 and concluded on June 2. It’s a really well-choreographed drama, most of which is the same story and done so in respect to its predecessor, but in my opinion is much better than original. Roots is an old idea, but it’s a story that should be told time, and time again.

Roots was one of popular culture’s first real attempts to portray the legacy left behind in the wake of slavery. The new series spans four episodes with each episode varying in length between ninety and one hundred and five minutes. They are feature-length episodes, and are in theory television movies. They wonderfully crafted, and each episodes hones in on a certain generation of the descendents of Kunte Kinte. Episode one is directed Phillip Noyce and starts out strongly depicting Kinte’s life in the Gambia incorporating its traditions, lifestyle and culture. That’s something the original missed out on.

Young Kunte Kinte (Malachi Kirby) (Roots, History Channel)

Young Kunte Kinte (Malachi Kirby)
(Roots, History Channel)

The horrors of the Middle Passage are ruthlessly shown by Noyce and episode one talks about Kinte’s life before his life as a slave. The effort and detail that has gone into the African scenes has to be applauded, as culture is one of the themes that pushes Kinte’s character development. He never forgets where he came from, nor does he forget his name when he’s given the new name of Toby. His culture and origins root him to his beliefs, especially after his pride has been chipped away at when he’s whipped for not taking on his new name. This is by the savage and horrific Tony Curran (Race) as Connelly.

On arriving to America, Kunte ponders why the slaves don’t run. There’s more slaves than there are overseers. The slaves have been manipulated and sculpted into submission through sheer intimidation. But if you escape this plantation, some other white man will get you down the line. Connelly says “You can’t buy a slave. You got to make a slave”, which means that you have to show them who’s in charge and what will happen if you don’t follow orders. Connelly tries so many times to break Kunte’s will and spirit. “Your name is your shield, your name is your spirit”. He never forgets his name, and the white men see that as an insult. Despite being enslaved, he’s able to retain one piece of his former self, hence not being completely broken.

Omoro Kinte (Babs Olusanmokun) (Roots, History Channel)

Omoro Kinte (Babs Olusanmokun)
(Roots, History Channel)

Both versions of Roots are a study of the human soul and our innate instinct to resist what we believe to be unfair and inhuman. Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose) is her father’s daughter. She’s the daughter of Kunta Kinte and a house servant for Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He’s an arrogant gambler. He does this to prove a point; that he can be part of upper class society in the deep south even though he came from nothing. Everything he has, he worked for. He’s an egotistical gambler and rapist. Raping Kizzy is not a criminal offence since she’s a slave and she gave birth to a son who’d be later known as George ‘Chicken George’ Murray. John Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) plays the role of a racist slave owner to perfection as do his compatriots, James Purefoy (High Rise) and Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey). These characters are entitled because they are white and they play these roles to a remarkable degree. Slave families can be ripped apart at anytime. If the slave owner was in a bad mood one day, he could decide to sell one member of the family to another plantation like we saw with a young Kizzy being ripped from her parents.

The various encounters are often like a soap operas met with the seriousness topics of slavery. The numerous interactions between characters are given conviction by the great ensemble cast which includes: Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Matilda (Erica Tazel) and Noni Rose’s Kizzy. Regé-Jean Page killed it as Chicken George, and it was better to have a real dual-heritage actor in the role than what was given in the original Roots. Roots has many characters and stories to play with in the four episode period. It has a mixture of the dark gritty aspects of slavery but also the comedy relief in characters like Chicken George and Kunta’s naivety to the American way. But there also scenes that I found difficult to watch like when Kunta’s foot was cut off when he got caught trying to run away as well as when he was whipped for staying true to his African name. The bloody scenes were raw and often make shows like Black Sails, Vikings or Game Of Thrones look like a walk in the park. The production value of the show’s visual effects are second to none.

Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose) threatens to kill Tom Murray (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) if he ever touches her grandchildren
(Roots, History Channel)

Episode four shows military clashes between the north and the south during the American Civil War. They are very entertaining and engaging battle sequences that keep you on edge for characters that you’ve grown to love over the four-day event. I think one more episode was needed to give audiences more time to get acquainted with Nancy Holt (Anna Paquin). For a slavery drama, there’s this constant feeling that things will get better. Things are slowly getting better within their general lives even if they are slaves. Then we have Laurence Fishburne (Batman V Superman) linking various chapters in a voiceover as the book’s author, Alex Haley. He does this amidst touching musical scores and scenes that added to the emotional knot that has tightened in my stomach as we see the everlasting love that the Kunta has for his family, in addition to the love that George and Kizzy share with each and their families too.

There’s never not a good time for a slavery drama. Race is always on people’s minds in the media of late. In the 1970s, generations across the world were oblivious to slavery and even now, people are just as blissfully ignorant of its wide lens and everlasting effect on the generations that surpassed the Civil War. Slavery also occured in the West Indies and England as well. Descendents of slaves are on both sides of the Atlantic. Haley was at the brunt of a law suit at the publication of his novel and it turns out that he copied bits of it from other books but that doesn’t make slavery any less true. Maybe the characters in Roots were fictional but their problems and the extent of the human soul are as accurate as it gets. Slavery happened and that’s something we have to accept. It went unchallenged and unchecked for centuries.

George 'Chicken George' Murray (Regé-Jean Page) (Roots, History Channel)

George ‘Chicken George’ Murray (Regé-Jean Page)
(Roots, History Channel)

Families were destroyed because of slavery. It was okay to throw dead slaves off ships because they weren’t classed as people. They were no better than livestock. This happened. Humans treated other humans like this and it’s something that needs to be spoken about more openly than it is right now. It was outlawed in the UK in 1807 but didn’t end in the USA for more than fifty years after this point. The US lingered on in thinking that slavery was okay because it made money and nobody began to think about the moral ramifications of it. How did people sleep at night knowing that their fellow human beings were being treated in such a manner?

In conclusion, Roots is very much a family drama despite its gore, blood and violence. It’s a historical document that we all must witness, black and white alike. Both versions of Roots should be compulsory watching. They’re rites of passage shows. It’s an attempt to make us think about what might have happened if we born into that era. Who in our communities would have profited? It’s a constant reminder of one of the most atrocious parts of human history and it is direct correlation to the present-day, centuries later.

You are who you are, and never forget that