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Back to "Roots" with a Multi-Channel Remake of the Television Classic

During the bleak, bitterly cold winter of 1977, "Roots" became a phenomenon. First broadcast on ABC during the last week of January of that year, the eight-part miniseries captivated the country. Over half of the United States was turned on to the show, and it still holds the record as one of the most-watched broadcasts in history. The finale is the second most-watched finale for any TV show ever.

The series was based on Alex Haley's best selling 1976 novel, in which he traced his African-American family roots back to his 18th century, earliest-known ancestor Kunta Kinte in what is now Gambia in West Africa. What made the show even more special and attract a huge audience was that it was one of the very rare examples of Hollywood telling the real ugly and brutal history of slavery in the U.S. It was a far cry from the usual depiction of slavery in films for decades, of happy and content slaves joyfully working singing and dancing to the amusement of their benevolent white masters.

It was, to many people, a revelation, leading to discussions about racism and America's tragic history of slavery, and its still lingering effects. Some parents even named heir newborn children after characters in the series. Ironically, it may be no surprise that the network at the last minute rescheduled "Roots" to be broadcast over a week instead of weekly as originally planned, having doubts that people would be interested in turning in weekly.

Needless to say, when it was announced that a remake (or "re-imagining") would be broadcast by three cable networks (History, A&E and Lifetime), there were those who questioned the necessity of one. Even one actor from the original, John Amos, said that the remake was “further evidence, for the most part, that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt. They have to keep going back to what’s been done and what’s successful because they’re pretty much out of fresh ideas.”

He further added that "so much time has passed. I think there’s a great deal of apathy about the subject matter. I don’t think people are quite as interested. We had so many things going for us that made (the original) such a unique and popular experience. One, the subject matter never [had] been delved into before. Two, it was derived from an international best seller … so there were a number of things that led ‘Roots’ to being the incredibly popular program it was.”

So the question is was he right? The answer when it comes to this new version of "Roots" is something of a mixed bag. There are some ways in which it improves on the original, but other elements in which it absolutely doesn't. It does seem clear after one views the entire program that "re-imagining" actually means more blood and gore. There's enough bloody mayhem in this new version of "Roots" in the form of graphic dismemberment, shootings, stabbings, lynchings, faces torn apart by gun shots, etc. that one could be forgiven into thinking they were watching "Hostel 3" instead of "Roots."

As with the original version, this new remake chronicles only the first half of Haley's book—from Kinte in Africa starting off as a carefree young man and trained into a fierce Mandinka warrior to his capture and enslavement in America, ending when Chicken George and his family leave north after the Civil War as free people. (The sequel mini-series, "Roots: The Next Generations," dealt with the second half of the book, broadcast by ABC two years later.) 

On the positive side, this new version benefits greatly from location shooting (shot in South Africa and Louisiana) with some beautifully evocative cinematography, which makes it a visual stunner when compared to the original "Roots," which was mainly shot on the studio backlot. And the performances on the whole are quite good with the striking-looking Malachi Kirby as a very potent Kinte sketched as more of a fighter and rebel than LeVar Burton was in the original.

And using mainly established feature film directors such as Phillip Noyce, Mario van Peebles and Bruce Beresford not only leads a certain cachet to the series but give it at times an intensity not out of place in feature films. For example, Noyce's treatment of the voyage of the slave ship to America is turned into an impressionistic nightmare of broken bodies, blood, vomit and excrement.

However, in an obvious attempt to keep eyeballs glued to the screen, the remake adds several scenes of dramatic action that do not appear in either the book or the original mini-series. Sequences include: a violent slave revolt on the ship, a battle skirmish during the Revolutionary War, the lynching of a black man and white woman together, the battle of Ft. Pillow during the Civil War in which the black Union solders were massacred by Confederate solders and even a hurricane. While they make for compelling viewing, they actually add nothing to the storyline or the characters.

And though the series does follow certain dramatic episodes taken straight from the original "Roots," the emotional impact overall is rather muted. The end result is a mini-series which just feels unnecessary. While there is always a need for films and TV programs about America's greatest sin, this new "Roots" adds nothing to the conversation except repeating old tropes that have been done before with no fresh or unique viewpoints. Unlike the impact of the original, this "Roots" feels like something we've seen before. 

Sergio Mims

Sergio Mims is a film critic and historian and is the host and producer of the weekly Bad Mutha’ Film Show WHPK-FM (88.5PM Chicago) as along as the classical music format chief for the station with his own weekly music show. 

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