Remember “post-racial America”?
It was an idea that got media attention in the glow of the election of our first black president. The idea was seductive, but painfully simplistic: With Barack Obama in the White House, the thinking went, centuries of inequality and cruelty had suddenly evaporated and we could now all dance happily together in the town square. Instead, the Obama presidency brought racist trolls out of their caves, and it has served as the backdrop for a renewed awareness of our criminally biased criminal justice system.
So the remake of “Roots” arrives on Monday not as a portrait of times going or gone by but as a miniseries that’s as spikily relevant now as the original was back in 1977. It’s a technically updated and marvelously acted work for the era of “Black Lives Matter,” a solid dramatic reminder of the complexity and depth of racism in America. At a time when the Confederate flag remains controversial, with the man accused of murdering nine black South Carolina churchgoers using it as a symbol of hate, the new “Roots” serves as a still-necessary explainer. The country remains linked to the antebellum South, despite the passing of hundreds of years.
Why remake it at all? I can’t pretend to know what guided the decision to return to Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 book, but I’d bet the Oscar-winning 2013 film “12 Years a Slave,” with its brutal realism, played a big role. The idea of bringing both new scholarship about American slavery and state-of-the-art production values to the story — which the remake succeeds very well in doing — had to be enticing.
And then the cultural importance of keeping “Roots” alive for new generations had to be compelling. Much as I wish that re-airing the original “event” would address that need, young viewers might not take that version personally. They might find it easy to distance themselves from the dated production values and actors from another era such as Leslie Uggams, Lorne Greene, John Amos, and Lloyd Bridges. You can teach slavery through textbooks, but the gut impact of relatable human stories is invaluable.
The four-part miniseries will air in two-hour chunks beginning Monday at 9 p.m. and continuing through the week. Three channels, History, A&E, and Lifetime, will run it simultaneously. And each installment is helmed by a different director (Phillip Noyce, Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter, and Bruce Beresford, respectively) and focuses primarily on the hardships of a different generation of one family. Most likely the remake won’t win the blockbuster ratings of the ABC original, whose finale drew 100 million viewers, the kind of number now seen only in reference to Super Bowl Sunday. And since, largely thanks to the original “Roots,” audiences are familiar with the enormity of slavery, the remake probably won’t carry with it the same power of revelation. But those who tune in will be glad they did.
The story begins in Gambia, West Africa, where Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) is born. “Your name is your spirit,” his father says to him as an infant. “Your name is your shield.” That theme — the significance of the name, of your identity — recurs throughout the miniseries, particularly since American slave owners rename their slaves. Rebellious and precocious, young Kunta works to be a fierce Mandinka warrior until he is grabbed and sold to the British, who brand him and send him to America tied up among others in a ship’s hold. The ship sequence is nauseating. The abducted blacks are fed like pigs and forced to lie in their own excrement. But, in what is a regular redemptive reflex in the “Roots” story, its recurrent signal of survival and hope, the slaves sing and talk to one another across their chains.
Kunta is sold to Virginia plantation owner John Waller (James Purefoy); we see Waller assessing Kunta with his hands, as if he’s about to purchase a piece of furniture. But Kunta continually refuses to submit. “You can’t buy a slave,” Waller’s aggressive plantation overseer says. “You’ve got to make a slave.” In a scene famous from the original, we watch that overseer sadistically whip Kunta, who refuses to utter his slave name, Toby. Kunta finds a friend in Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), who tries to protect him from his own defiant spirit. Their bond is complex and lovely.
Two unforgettable narrative patterns emerge, as “Roots” moves ahead to Kunta’s daughter Kizzy (strikingly played as an adult by Anika Noni Rose), to her son “Chicken” George (Regé-Jean Page), and finally to George’s children, in particular Tom. The first is that the fates of the slave families we’re following repeatedly change in an instant — when little Kizzy is ripped away from Kunta and his wife, Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), or when George is suddenly whisked off to England to pay his owner’s debt. The speed takes your breath away.
The second pattern is that a number of white characters seem sympathetic to slaves, until they definitely aren’t. Just when you think Waller’s brother William (Matthew Goode) is going to be kind, he erupts into hate speech and talks about breeding Kizzy. Likewise little Missy, who befriends little Kizzy, teaches her to read, and then turns on her, racial hatred reaching into the innocence of childhood. Each time these violent betrayals occur, it’s deflating all over again, another possibility of hope denied.
There are rapists among the masters, most repulsively Tom Lea, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who is the secret father of George. “Kill me,” Kizzy begs as he forces himself on her. But “Roots” always keeps the focus on the black men, women, and children torn apart over and over again. We don’t go far into the lives of the slave masters in this “Roots,” in the way HBO, FX, AMC, or Showtime might pursue corrupt antiheroes; this isn’t their story.
The cast is just right. The better-known actors — Whitaker, Goode, Rhys Meyers, Anna Paquin — are fine. But the younger cast members are extraordinary and carry the miniseries beautifully. As Kunta, 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, hovers over the entire miniseries, even though he’s only in the first two parts. Page is remarkable as Chicken George, whose charm is his survival mechanism. And as Belle, the woman who nurses and then marries Kunta in a sweet wedding scene, Corinealdi movingly conveys a maternal yet tragic nature. Occasionally the script overemphasizes its teaching moments, having characters deliver little speeches instead of letting the situations speak for themselves. But the actors make those too-earnest, almost operatic bits pass by without gumming up the works.
The remake’s executive production team includes two links to the 1977 version — Mark Wolper, son of original producer David L. Wolper, and LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte. They’ve brought “Roots” back to TV without undermining the unblinking spirit of the original, without relying on the kinds of star turns that would compromise the immediacy of the storytelling. They’ve kept the emphasis on the barbarity of American slavery, and softened it only with the perseverance and courage of those who lived through it.
Starring: Malachi Kirby, Regé-Jean Page, Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Mekhi Phifer, James Purefoy, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anika Noni Rose; Anna Paquin, Erica Tazel, T.I., Matthew Goode, Emayatzy Corinealdi
On: History, Lifetime, A&E, Monday through Thursday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.