Roots 9 p.m., History, A&E, Lifetime
Sometimes, casting lesser-known actors works best.
The better-known actors in this powerful “Roots” remake are fine, and at times better than fine. Forest Whitaker is touching as Fiddler, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers is effectively repulsive as the needy rapist slave owner.
But the younger cast members, many of them British and newcomers in terms of American awareness, are extraordinary and carry the miniseries beautifully. We don’t have to deal with any specific expectations of them or associations with previous roles. We don’t go in assuming they will be playing good guys, or bad. Our connection with their characters is more direct.
As Kunta Kinte, Malachi Kirby projects both intelligence and naivete, the latter as he asks “Why don’t they run?” upon seeing slaves in the fields for the first time. His performance, as he maintains the body language and speaking patterns of Kunta’s African youth, is strong enough to hover over the entire miniseries, even though he’s only in the first two parts.
Regé-Jean Page is remarkable as Chicken George, Kunta’s grandson, whose charm is his survival mechanism. Like Kirby, he’s unforgettable. And as Belle, the woman who nurses and then marries Kunta in a sweet wedding scene, Emayatzy Corinealdi (above, with Kirby) movingly conveys a maternal yet tragic nature.
Occasionally the “Roots” script overemphasizes its teaching moments, having characters deliver little speeches instead of letting the situations speak for themselves. But these actors make those too-earnest, almost operatic bits pass by without gumming up the works.
The four-part miniseries is airing in two-hour chunks this week, Monday through Thursday. But you can watch the Monday installment before Tuesday’s, at 7 p.m. Each installment is helmed by a different director (Tuesday, it’s Mario Van Peebles).Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.