‘Roots’ Returns for the Black Lives Matter Generation
LeVar Burton—the original Kunta Kinte—and the cast of the new Roots defend the controversial remake and explain the power of retelling the story for a new generation.
On Night Two of the History channel’s retelling of Roots, there’s a scene in which a young black man—a slave—is attempting to run away from a plantation. There’s a line of white overseers who watch him run. They shoot him in the back.
“I don’t think I need to say how relevant that is to right now," Malachi Kirby, the 26-year-old British actor who plays the pivotal role of Kunta Kinte in the new series, tells The Daily Beast. “These things happened. And they’re happening today.”
When it was announced that the History channel would be remaking the legendary Roots miniseries with an all-new cast and a more modern feel, there was skepticism. Lots of it. Including from the people who ended up making it.
“I was expecting the skepticism because I had skepticism about making it,” says Mark Wolper, the executive producer who shepherded the retelling, which begins Monday night, to History.
Several members of the original cast, including Cicely Tyson, voiced their displeasure with the idea. It was met with outrage online, shouted through various social media megaphones. The original series, based off Alex Haley’s landmark novel, changed history. At the time, and for years after, it was the most watched television event ever. It received 37 Emmy nominations and won nine. Four decades later, Roots is still legend.
It turns out, that is precisely why a new Roots needed to be made.
For a new generation, Roots is only a legend. They know of it. But they haven’t seen it. Tracking down VHS tapes of a 40-year-old TV show isn’t a priority either, it turns out, and thus the indisputable power of the series was escaping an entire generation whose lives were, in a way, shaped by its impact.
LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in the original series and co-executive produced the History remake, was also against making a new Roots—until he talked to Wolper and heard his reasoning for wanting to bring the show back.
“He showed Roots to his kids,” Burton says. “Although they watched it, they found it dated and the makeup was bad, which it was! It wasn’t exactly an enjoyable experience for them. Mark realized if he was ever going to get his kids, and by proxy the generation that his children represent, to watch Roots, to embrace this story, that it had to be retold in the storytelling language that they understood.”
It’s like if you tell your kids to listen to the Rolling Stones, Wolper says. (Bear with us.) It’s still music, and it’s still fantastic. But it doesn’t speak to them the say way it speaks to those who lived the music the first time around. Kids today have their own Rolling Stones, for better or worse. (Worse.)
“You can’t tell a kid, ‘Hey, here’s a TV show that’s a really great history lesson!’” Wolper says. “What are they going to say? ‘Screw you!’
“Even though we know the history, the next generation doesn’t,” he continues. “We are the grios, which is the traditional African storyteller of history. We are the griots of our generation as TV producers. We have an obligation to tell the stories over and over again. We can educate a whole nation because they’re interested in coming to watch this show. They enjoy it first, and then they get the seeds of an education of the history of this country as part of this project.”
The timing—against a cultural backdrop of #OscarsSoWhite and the Black Lives Matter movement—brings a new perspective to the story of Roots. But the power of the story, too, is how the perspective doesn’t change.
“It’s not just pop culture,” Anika Noni Rose, who plays Kizzy in the new series, says. “It’s our heritage, our past. And it’s our present.”
Olivia Cole, who won an Emmy Award for playing Mathilda in the 1977 original, agrees. “We need to know who we are,” she says. “We need to know. A tree grows from where? Its roots. Everybody needs roots. These are ours.”
Respectfully, Kirby thinks the controversy over the remake is ridiculous.
The London-based actor, largely unknown outside of the U.K., where he appeared on EastEnders and Doctor Who, was cast from a pool over 3,500 actors. He first saw Roots four years ago, when his mom gave him a VHS boxset of the series and implored him to watch.
“I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone who’s told me that the story of Roots isn’t important,” Kirby says. “I think about Shakespeare. Because there have been hundreds of variations of Shakespeare’s plays since they’ve been written and I believe it’s because they’re important. They’re still relevant today. Roots is still relevant today. The idea that we shouldn’t tell this story again is very strange to me.”
Though Kirby was 22 when he first watched, his first exposure to Roots came long before, when classmates at school would call him “Kunta Kinte” as a derogatory diss.
“I didn’t pay attention to it much at the time,” he says. “But then when I eventually knew who Kunta Kinte really was [after watching the tapes,] I remembered, Wow, I thought Kunta Kinte was a negative thing to be associated with. But he’s incredible. A superhero. These kids got it wrong. It just shocked me, the perception that I had about Kunta Kinte was wrong.”
That anecdote alone, from the remake’s star himself, makes a case for why a new Roots is necessary.
Kirby is phenomenal in the new series, never more so than in the pivotal scene that closes out Night One, when Kunta Kinte is chained to a post and beaten, defiantly holding onto his identity by refusing to go by the name his new slave owner has given him, repeating “Kunta Kinte” after each lashing instead of “Toby” as the master demands.
He filmed the scene on a real plantation. The same land that Kunta Kinte would’ve worked on, the same trees surrounding it. He was dressed in the same clothes Kunta Kinte would’ve worn. He was chained to the post with real chains. He felt real things.
“I remember going through the scene and feeling and hearing the cries and the screams of what felt like every enslaved person who had gone through that for real,” he says.
“I’m here on this post thinking this may have happened right here, and it just reminded me of the fact that this happened and it was horrific,” he continues. “I really hope people receive that. Not just his integrity and his strength but the fact that the idea of someone having their identity literally beaten out of them is terrible. Sometimes we still do that today. We still try to beat the identity of someone out of them with the idea that it will make them better. That’s terrible. It’s horrific. It humbled me and it brought me to my knees, and tears.”
For Burton, watching Kirby in the famous scene marks the first time in 40 years that he’s been able to view it as an audience member, an observer, and feel its power that way rather than as a performer. “It wrecked me,” he says. “I cannot watch that scene without getting emotional, and I’ve seen it about a dozen times now. Without tears coming.”
He’s happy to give over Kunta Kinte to a new performer, for a new telling, Burton says. The Black Lives Matter movement, the headlines we read every day, and the conversations we are having make the story of Roots as necessary now as it was four decades ago—so he has no doubt that the climate in America will demand another retelling 40 years from now, too. And he will happily welcome a third actor to the, for now, exclusive club.
And so for all the talk of the cultural significance of a Roots retelling—and why a new generation needs a version with better makeup, more exciting filmmaking, and actors they recognize (Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Anna Paquin, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew Goode, and Anika Noni Rose all co-star)—Burton has strong thoughts about what he hopes that generation takes away from the story.
A sermon, really. Let him preach:
“I hope that kids who have African ancestry really get how remarkable they are,” he says. “And that they experience their blackness as a badge of honor and pride. That the DNA that flows through them is the best that the African continent has to offer. That they are descendants of survivors of the most atrocious horrors in the history of humanity. And that there’s nothing to be ashamed from. In fact, they have every reason to be proud of who they are and what their ancestors were able to endure.”
He continues: “For people of European descent, I hope they are able to recognize the humanity fully on display in this family, the descendants of Kunta Kinte, as they struggle for each succeeding generation to hold on to the only thing they have left: their sense of themselves, and the connection they have to one another.”
And finally: “I hope that in our conversations with each other we are able to meet eye to eye, absent guilt and the shame that has been there for so much of this conversation, and that we can accept one another as Americans locked in the same struggle for survival—in order to really make good on the promise this country was founded upon, that all men and women are created equal. “