In the 1970’s and 1980’s a British television staple was the American Mini-Series. Over three or four nights we were entranced by much higher budget productions than we were used to seeing over here of works by the likes of Irwin Shaw, Colleen McCullogh, Barbara Taylor Bradford and (yes, unfortunately) Jeffery Archer. All these were big heavyweights in the publishing industry who were rewarded by this exposure with life-long buoyant careers. But the best of these, the one that made the most impression certainly in the playgrounds I was hanging around in at the time was “Roots”. Based upon a memoir of his family by Alex Haley this was first shown on BBC1 in 1977.
The original “Roots”
Overnight it turned the name “Kunte Kinte” into one of legend in schools, colleges and workplaces. It starred those standard mini-series Big Hollywood names – Burl Ives, George Hamilton, Lorne Greene, Ed Asner, Lloyd Bridges but it brought to the fore the largest number of African-American actors to be seen on British television. (Remember, at this time a Saturday night regular on BBC1 was still “The Black And White Minstrel Show). It introduced many Brits to Black American history and brought home the horrors of slavery like never before. The plight of Kunte Kinte stayed entrenched in a generation’s consciousness. In the US its ratings alone made it a significant landmark in television history. I do remember watching it all over again when it was repeated and last watched it only a few years ago when I thought, all things considered, it had pretty much stood the test of time.
Time Magazine cover Feb 1977
Those in television perhaps do not agree as tucked away on BBC4 this week, forty years on, was the first part of a four part remake with (probably) a bigger budget and scenes of perhaps greater intensity and violence. The remake has lost the washed-out brownish tones of 70’s television, the nightmare of slavery was now depicted in crisp HD, but I wondered, being someone who remembers the original whether a remake is a worthwhile enterprise.
The answer is a conditional yes, if the intention is to once again bring this story to a public’s attention. It is now an American classic and we don’t usually object too much to classics being remade for a new generation. I think we will need to accept that it would not stop the world in its tracks like the original, as we are far more aware of this aspect of American history.
I have only watched the first episode which did seem to feel faithful towards what I remembered of the original series. Over the one and a half hours we got the sense of some of Kunte Kinte’s life in his homeland, his abduction and sale into slavery, his introduction to life in a tobacco plantation where attempts to beat the African-ness out of him look, to his owners, as if they are becoming successful. Fiddler (Forest Whitaker and a very memorable Lou Gossett Jnr in the original) advises the horrifically beaten Kunte Kinte, now renamed by his new owners, Toby, to “Keep your true name inside.”
The role of Kunte Kinte, which was so brilliantly played by LeVar Burton as a young man and John Amos as the older was here taken on by Malachi Kirby, a twenty-seven year old British actor who before this had appeared in an episode of “Dr Who” and a handful of “Eastenders”. A huge casting achievement for him and he takes on the mantle of this legendary tv character with great aplomb. Fellow Brit, James Purefoy, is playing “Massa” John Waller. We don’t seem to be departing too far from the time-honoured tradition of having Brits play the most repugnant characters with Scottish actor Tony Curran playing the hideous overseer, Connelly who tracks down the fleeing slave and beats him to within an inch of his life. In fact, this scene, together with those of the sea journey down in the hold of the ship makes for extremely difficult viewing and both may have been ramped up a little from the original to permeate through our post-Millennium thicker skins.
Brits in Roots- Malachi Kirby, James Purefoy, Tony Curran
This remake of “Roots” was commissioned by The History Channel. I am working from memory here but the only real significant change was to make Kunte Kinte’s life in Juffure seem more precarious than in the original. I seem to remember it more as an idyllic African existence that he was unknowingly plucked from. Here there was an attempt to give this a bit more context with rival tribes, an especially eye-watering initiation to Mandinka manhood ceremony and Kunte Kinte’s conflict in wanting to move away to study at Timbuktu University in the moments before his abduction. Perhaps we will get a feel of a more contemporary perspective as the series continues. The other moments that made such an impression the first time round were all present here.
I’m still not totally convinced of the need for a remake (there is a danger that remakes dilute the power of the originals). I will stick with it, however, because it is important we watch, especially in these fractured times and I am looking forward to upcoming performances from Anike Noni Rose as Kizzy, Jonathan Rhys Meyer as Tom Lea and Anna Paquin, Mekhi Phifer, Laurence Fishburne and the original Kunte Kinte himself. LeVar Burton, in the cast. I am interested to see where it goes. The original had its wobbles, after the first couple of so impressive episodes it did occasionally veer towards soap opera and sentimentality so it will be interesting to see what happens here when the intensity of the pace is reduced.
Roots is shown on Wednesdays at 9.00 pm on BBC4. The first episode is available on the BBC I Player.