This year, History Channel releases its own adaptation of Alex Haley’s powerful novel Roots, the goal here being to bring the story to a modern audience, not surpass or diminish the beloved original 1977 miniseries.
Some critics have called this project unnecessary, the likes of Snoop Dogg even going as far as to denounce further depictions of American slavery like 12 Years A Slave, but the new Roots miniseries pilot episode should silence most doubters since it’s pretty clear from the get-go that this new adaptation shows the source material the respect it deserves. Set in the 18th century, the story of Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), the African boy who is captured and sold into slavery in the United States, is told with all the raw brutality and heartbreaking emotion you’d expect.
The first half of the pilot focuses on Kinte’s early years before his capture, training to be a Mandinka warrior in The Gambia like his father. He is headstrong and determined, despite his young age, but just as he begins his life as a man by disobeying his father and going for the girl he loves, he is taken and chained with others, including his friends and family, in a boat headed for America. What follows is a brutal, often tough to watch descent into Hell as we see Kinte stand up for his humanity in the face of intense cruelty.
While there is the odd cathartic moment such as a mutiny on the ship and Kinte’s first escape from the odious Waller family who purchases him, even those few hopeful events lead to brutal retaliations including a whipping scene every bit as harsh as you would think. Kinte is reluctant to give up his true name for the one the Wallers have given him even as he is being tortured but the episode still leaves us on a downbeat note hinting that, somehow, things are about to get even worse for him.
It’s hard to deny how well made this remake of Roots is, even if you feel the classic miniseries did not need an update. There’s nothing flashy or over-the-top about it, except perhaps the score at times, and the performances are very strong all around. One of the most distracting aspects of 12 Years A Slave was the casting of well-known actors like Brad Pitt in crucial roles and, although Roots is narrated by Laurence Fishburne and stars the likes of Forest Whitaker and Matthew Goode, they work hard to keep their involvement subtle and focused. Whitaker is particularly effective as one of the Pilot’s most interesting characters.
If the high quality of this miniseries continues then it’ll be hard to find anyone criticizing History Channel’s latest remake. This is still a relevant, powerful story and this adaptation should help bring it to a new generation who will then, no doubt, go back and read the novel as well as watch the original series. So far, this is a worthy retelling and I do recommend you catch it.
Roots can be seen right now on the History Channel.