NEW YORK (CNS) — Man’s inhumanity to man looms large on the small screen in “Roots.”
As did its famous predecessor, this new adaptation of Alex Haley’s multigenerational saga traces an African-American family’s long journey from slavery to freedom.
Together, Haley’s 1976 novel and the ABC miniseries that aired the following year represented a cultural phenomenon, sparking popular interest in a neglected aspect of American history.
Now this eight-hour series, produced by The History Channel, brings Haley’s story to a new generation of viewers, and is likely to have a similarly striking impact on its audience. Presented in two-hour installments, “Roots” will be simulcast on four consecutive nights beginning Monday, May 30, 9-11 p.m. EDT across The History Channel, A&E, Lifetime and LMN.
This lavish adaptation raises the bar considerably over its disco-era precursor, with a more serious tone, strong performances, and on-location filming in Africa and the American South.
As played by Laurence Fishburne, Haley (1921-1992) recounts a riveting tale he claimed was based on his own family history — and into which he blended oral tradition and the written records he uncovered through years of research. Scholars have subsequently disputed Haley’s faithfulness to the facts.
“My ancestors would be assembled from millions of slaves, all of them seeds of American families living today,” Haley explains. “Millions of men and women who struggled to survive and fought to be free every day.”
“Roots” opens in 1750 in the river region of The Gambia in West Africa, where a son is born to Omoro Kinte (Babs Olusanmokun) and his wife, Binta (Nokuthula Ledwaba). Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) grows to manhood and is trained as a proud Mandinka warrior.
Kidnapped by a rival faction in 1767, Kunta is sold to British slave traders and shipped with hundreds of fellow Africans to North America. There he is sold to a cruel Virginia plantation owner named John Waller (James Purefoy).
A fellow slave — and talented musician — known as Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) takes Kunta under his wing. But the young man refuses to accept his plight and tries, unsuccessfully, to escape. After his final attempt, Kunta is maimed by his captors.
Nursed back to health by the kindly Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Kunta becomes resigned to his fate. The two marry and have a daughter, Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose).
Kunta is determined to pass on his proud African heritage and customs to his daughter, instilling in her the will to survive, the quest for freedom and the importance of family — threads of a legacy that passes from generation to generation.
Across the backdrop of American history, from the Revolution through the Civil War, “Roots” follows the trials and tribulations of Kizzy and her descendants, including her son, Chicken George (Rege-Jean Page), and his son, Tom (Sedale Threatt Jr.), who was Haley’s great-grandfather.
“Roots” is upsetting to watch, unflinching in its portrayal of the cruelty and humiliation suffered by millions of slaves over more than a century.
Torture, rape, mutilation and murder are all graphically depicted, as is the wrenching emotional horror of family members being forcibly separated, never to see each other again. In keeping with history, the dialogue also frequently includes harsh racial epithets.
Given so much disturbing content, the series can only be recommended for mature adolescents if treated as a starting point for parent-guided family discussions.
These should lead to a fuller examination of a painful period in American history. They should also reinforce Judeo-Christian morality concerning the intrinsic value of each human life, the inherent dignity of each individual and the God-given equality of all.
McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.