Roots 2016

Roots

By now, many of you may have seen the updated version of the blockbuster television hit, Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley.

I enjoyed the original broadcast, and I enjoyed this one as well. It’s a very dramatic story with fine acting. Alex Haley was a talented writer, so the producers of this miniseries had good material at the start.

The trailer for the original miniseries:

The trailer for the remake:

In a movie like this, in a historical setting about a significant part of our nation’s history, it’s almost inevitable questions of accuracy arise. Let me say at the outset, this is a movie, not a history book. Its objective isn’t to teach us about history. Its objective is to entertain us. Having said that, though, it can be a vehicle through which we can learn more history, provided we use it with care.

NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW

Four historians conducted an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit about the miniseries. You can access it here. You can also see some suggested readings for further information about slavery here. Those on Twitter can check out the hashtag #RootsSyllabus for more suggestions.

Other historians have written about the miniseries as well. Glenn David Brasher compares the 1977 miniseries with the 2016 miniseries for the Journal of the Civil War Era  here. He writes, “The original mini-series inaccurately depicts West African kingdoms, for example, and glosses over the participation of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade. Its set design and makeup look dated, and the acting is often poor. There are too many story lines centered on white characters, glaring historical inaccuracies, and slave agency in the Civil War is unexplored.” I recall the scene where Kunta Kinte was captured in the original miniseries. It was done by white men deep in the African jungle, which probably didn’t happen much, if at all. More likely was the way it was depicted in the updated miniseries: captives of an African group were sold to slave traders. Dr. Brasher contrasts the original with the remake in this way: “The remake has cinema-quality production values, providing more realistic sets, better acting, and more powerful visuals. The series depicts West African kingdoms as economically and culturally sophisticated, and their involvement in the Atlantic slave trade is made clear. The addition of black agency during the American Revolution is well handled, and the last episode focuses almost exclusively on the Civil War. (Along with African American involvement in the conflict, the show demonstrates that Confederates typically murdered surrendering black soldiers). There are fewer unnecessary white characters, trimming much of the fat off the original. The exceptional third episode realistically demonstrates the types of sacrifices the enslaved made to maintain their families, and yet how this tended to force them to remain ‘loyal’ to their master, no matter how despicable he may have been.” I agree with this completely. We see the difficult choices enslaved people had to make to survive and to keep their families as intact as possible against long odds. This also shows one example, albeit not depicted as accurately as many would like, of confederate soldiers murdering USCT who had surrendered. Such murders took place. It’s a fact. Kevin Levin discusses this aspect here.

Dr. Brasher’s written quite a bit about the miniseries. Here he asks whether a remake is needed. His conclusion: “The original Roots reflected very current slave interpretation, sparking the interest of a new generation of historians. As a result, we now know a lot more about the west African kingdoms from which most American slave were taken, the different forms of resistance, and black participation and agency during the Civil War. The original looks and feels too much like 1970s television. Today’s networks have bigger budgets and cinema-quality production values, which will likely result in more realistic set design, make-up, and better acting. Still, perhaps the biggest reason for a remake is that part of what made the original Roots so powerful was casting that used familiar faces in ways that jarred audiences. For audiences that did not grow up on 1960s and 1970s television, this is lost. Perhaps it is indeed time to captivate a new generation with this powerful story.”

He also reviewed each episode. You can see the reviews here, here, here, and here. He was a lot more disappointed than I was, perhaps because I didn’t have high hopes for historically accurate depictions and instead regarded historically accurate scenes as icing on the cake.

Another issue tackled by the miniseries, and seen in the original miniseries as well, was the sexual exploitation of black women. Writer Pearl Duncan talks about this in an article here. She tells us, “I documented how multiple generations of European males in the same family – the grandfather, the father, the grandson – had children with the same enslaved African women. When I found records of a grandfather, father and grandson with the same name, it took extensive research to determine, ‘who was the daddy.’ In many families, brothers, uncles and other relatives were bearing children with the enslaved African women.”

Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar of the University of Delaware also commented on the miniseries. You can see her comments here, here, here, and here. She was also one of the historians who participated in the AMA on Reddit. In commenting on Episode One, she tells us, “The first episode clearly demonstrates how increasingly difficult it was to hold onto freedom when it was perched precariously next to enslavement. I imagine that this will be a theme that is touched on throughout the series. What I found most powerful in the first episode was its attention to slave resistance. Kunta Kinte’s training as a Mandinka warrior could not overpower the might of European slavery, but it prepared him to fight slavery at every turn. He constantly tries to escape and to fight his captors, and he is unafraid to use deadly force. The new Kinte reminds viewers of the strength and courage of African people, appropriately challenging the stereotypes of docile and timid slaves. No matter how degrading the situation, the enslaved did not lack humanity, nor were they traumatized beyond dignity—a dated myth that is eviscerated in the first episode.”

In discussing the second episode, Professor Dunbar says, “The previous episode ended with the powerful yet painful physical ‘breaking’ of Kunta Kinte. The protagonist is whipped so brutally that he publicly forsakes his given name for that of ‘Toby.’ This iconic moment in television history has been seen as a marker of defeat. However, if we think about survival as a form of resistance, Kinte did indeed resist. He uttered his slave name in order to live, to continue fighting his capture, and perhaps to experience a different future, one that would restore his freedom. Although Kinte ultimately answered to his English name, his rejection of Christianity and steadfast belief in Islam are welcome additions to this version of Roots. Through his wedding headdress, prayer, and other rituals, Kinte shuns the religion propagated by the English, holding onto the faith of his parents and family in Juffureh. While some Black men and women adopted Christianity, this slow transformation never claimed Kinte. In addition to questioning Christianity, Kinte verbally attacks the so-called ‘African tradition’ of marital broom jumping. Emphatically denying the ritual as African, Kinte tells his new bride that the tradition of jumping over a broom makes a mockery of their marriage. This addition to the story of Roots is poignant and accurately demonstrates cultural disconnects between newly imported enslaved people and those who had been born in America.”

Episode Three brings Kunta’s daughter Kizzy to the forefront, and Professor Dunbar zeroes in on the sexual exploitation of enslaved women seen in this episode. “It is Kizzy’s first encounter with her new master that brings the experiences of enslaved women front and center. Tom Lea, an alcoholic Irish American farmer teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, sexually violates Kizzy within minutes of meeting her. Her screams of ‘Kill me! Kill me!’ remind viewers of the constant and heavy burden of sexual assault upon the bodies of enslaved women. Rape fueled and expanded the system of human bondage, and Kizzy confronts and survives this most common and brutal form of control and violence perpetrated upon the bodies of women. She gives birth to Lea’s son, and her inability to embrace her newborn child demonstrates the deeply complicated feelings surrounding motherhood within slavery. She contemplates both infanticide and suicide after her newborn’s arrival, but remembers her duty to family and the strength of her father. Kizzy will later tell her son, nicknamed Chicken George, that in that moment she made a conscious decision. As she tells him, ‘I decided to live.’ Like millions of enslaved women, Kizzy submits to repeated sexual violence in order to keep her owner content. She does this to keep her son safe from angry reprisals, but makes certain that she will never bear another child by her captor: she consumes herbs and roots to prevent pregnancy. The presence of family, in particular children, kept millions of enslaved women from attempted escape. In an earlier episode, Belle, Kunta Kinte’s wife, reminds her husband of the difficulties of escaping slavery with children in tow. A baby’s crying and need for comfort and food would too easily expose a runaway family. Toddlers’ little legs and feet could not keep up the rapid pace needed for a successful escape. So Kizzy’s son and grandchildren keep her from leaving the Lea farm. When she meets and falls in love with a free Black man, capable of purchasing her freedom, she refuses his offer. Kizzy explains that even if she were free, she would ‘die every day,’ knowing that her family remained enslaved. So she makes the ultimate sacrifice for her family and rejects the possibility of life as a free woman in order to remain with her loved ones. This decision will haunt her, but positions her to help care for her grandchildren in their greatest hour of need: after the sale of her son, Chicken George.”

In capping off her discussion of the miniseries, Professor Dunbar tells us, “Arriving in North Carolina at the height of sectional tension before the Civil War, George discovers that his mother has died and his wife and children have been sold. Calling upon his superior performance skills, George tricks his previous owner, and father, Tom Lea, into revealing the location of his family. This encounter between enslaved person and former owner is powerfully symbolic. In 1860, the newly freed Black man possessed an unwavering sense of empowerment while the slave owner was close to extinction, as was the institution of slavery in America. An independent, wise, and unstoppable George confronts a downtrodden, sickly, and aged Lea. George’s wrathful parting words to his former owner are commanding: ‘Your whole damn life, you was a slave too, you just didn’t know it.’ He leaves the farm and the man that had claimed many years of his life, but not before taking Lea’s gun—another symbolic gesture of a transfer of power.  And finally, the most anticipated moment arrives. One of the most moving scenes in episode four is when the enslaved men and women learn of their emancipation. No decree of liberation is read nor are there parades or fireworks. Instead, the enslaved on Benjamin Murray’s farm hear about their freedom via word of mouth. They rejoice, but also reflect on how much has been lost; the sale of children, the death of loved ones, the more than two centuries of unbearable suffering all temper their elation.”

Overall, this was a fine production. While it wasn’t completely historically accurate, it did capture the crushing load of being enslaved, it captured some of the varied ways people dealt with being enslaved, and it captured some of the brutality the slave system contained. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend seeing it as soon as you can.

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7 comments

  1. bob carey · · Reply

    Al,
    I think the series did a good job in portraying the victims of slavery as individuals, with a variety of personalities and motivations. I think that all to often,and I’m as guilty about this as anyone, that there is a tendency to group the slaves into a category of men and women who accepted their fate and offered little resistance. The mini-series does a really good job in showing that the slave’s resistance had many forms, from developing strong inner strength to armed insurrection as in the case of Nat Turner.

    1. I agree, Bob, and I also agree with Dr. Brasher that there were other forms of resistance that weren’t shown, such as slow work, sabotage, spitting on food, or even poisoning food. There was a full continuum of resistance, and it was hinted at in this miniseries, but not really shown.

  2. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    I found this to be an excellent overview of Roots, with both Mr.Mackey’s opinion and the opinions of historians woven together quite nicely. I believe that the latest version of Roots reflects how much we have matured as a society in what we are now willing to accept as the truth of slavery (albeit, in in a fictional presentation). It is amazing to me how far we have come on this subject over the last 50+ years.

    1. Thanks, Shoshana.

  3. Al, thanks for bringing attention to my reviews. The ratings for the remake have been pretty impressive, which is great. It did a lot of things well, and I’m hopeful that the ratings for it and WGN’s Underground mean we will soon see more (and even more accurate) depictions of the Antebellum south which obliterate the Lost Cause.

    1. My pleasure, Glenn. I agree with you completely in the hope that we’ll see more and more accurate depictions.

  4. Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    So, they’ve rebooted “Roots,” the epic miniseries originally produced in 1977 that tried to confront modern popular audiences with the institution of slavery. (I discussed the original “Roots” in an article I did about 1970s TV miniseries). This article, from Al Mackey’s excellent Student of the American Civil War blog, presents his review of the 2016 version as well as a roundup of comments from others in the know. If you have an interest in how American history is portrayed in popular culture, this article is worth your time.

    I’m especially intrigued by the comment made by Dr. Brasher, quoted here, regarding the casting of slaveowners in the original. In 1977 the makers of “Roots” deliberately sought to cast actors who were favorite heroes, “TV dads” and other type roles, Lorne Greene (“Gunsmoke”) being one example. This was part of the series’s cultural impact. I haven’t seen the new version, but I’m wondering, without that element, whether the impact of the reboot will be much lessened. Still, it’s very heartening to see the agency of African-Americans in slavery, and their various complex strategies for resistance and cohesion, portrayed more accurately and delicately in 2016 than was probably ever possible in the 1970s. Very interesting review, and thanks Al Mackey.

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