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Here’s why the “Roots” remake hit home for me

When I saw the advertisements that claimed “a new vision” when creating a reboot of the classic miniseries, Roots, I was a bit skeptical. If the product isn’t good, “a new vision” usually equates with “a new version of what you love that we didn’t have to make.” And if the product doesn’t maintain the intentions of the original, “a new vision” translates to “a white people remake.”

However, neither of that was the case in this rendition of Roots on the History Channel. This new version does have a particular vision in representing the variety of African and African American culture and the traumas of slavery without stealing the spotlight and hype of the 1977 version. Moreover, to my surprise, there is a more diverse set of producers and directors on this project compared to the 1977 version. A lot of thought was placed into the 2016 rendition of Roots, and it shows.

So let’s talk about this first episode.

Alex Haley (played by Laurence Fishburne) narrates how Kunta Kinte (played by Malachi Kirby) grew up in the Mandinka village of Juffre, Gambia, before being captured into slavery and placed in Virginia. Despite being uprooted from his home, Kunta Kinte tries to maintain his culture and name, despite being almost beaten to death for not referring to himself as his new name given by his slave owner’s wife (played by Katie McGuiness): Toby.

We’re in this age of TV and film production where everything has to be fast-paced in order for it to make it more exhilarating. The cinematography between the scenes and flashbacks of Juffre, Gambia and the scenes of Kunta Kinte’s enslavement in Virginia provide a great visual contrast that we don’t see often in media depictions of slavery. The scenes in Juffre are full of light; the ship and Virginia area are dark and gloomy. It’s also necessary that there be more graphic depictions of slavery in this rendition (e.g. the sleeping in their own blood and vomit on the ship, the whippings).

A lot of artistic license has been taken into account in this version, but there is a purpose behind it. In the 1977 version, the viewer can only see how slavery affects African men and their viewpoint on their surroundings on the ship, and their resiliency. The only form of acknowledgement of African women’s struggle was rape, and we don’t see a form of resiliency. However, In the 2016 version, the viewer can see African men and women trying to fight back on the ship in response to a woman about to be raped by the captain of the ship. We needed to see equal representation of struggle and strength in that respect.

And I’m not going to lie: it gave me chills to see a black woman stabbing a white man to death in this episode.

The music immediately grabs one’s attention from the beginning of the episode to the end. From the traditional African songs, particularly the songs of prayer to Allah, displaying religious diversity, to the mantra the African men sing on the ship defending their fellow Mandinka sister, to the song Kunta Kinte’s mother sings to him – all of these play a part in setting the emotional atmosphere. 

Fiddler (played by Forrest Whitaker) plays Kunta Kinte’s mother’s song on his violin to the slave owners and the overseer in an effort to help Kunta Kinte escape to freedom. His character stands out to me in this version of Roots, because he is more outspoken here than in the 1977 version. He plays more of an active role in Kunta Kinte’s thirst for freedom, and the viewer can see how he has as much of a valid backstory as Kunta Kinte. Initially, Kunta Kinte doesn’t want Fiddler playing his mother’s song on the violin, because he believes it only belongs to him. However, the song resonates with Fiddler and just as much because it was a song his grandmother used to sing to him before he was sold off into slavery.

We as people may be selfish about the treasures we have in our cultures, but this shows how important it is to preserve our cultures by forming a unit in the backgrounds we share

Kunta Kinte is not the only one who had to go through a name change either. Him being willing to ask Fiddler what his real name is, Henry, before he escapes, is one of the most poignant scenes of the episode. It is touching because every person has their roots that make them who they are, and their roots must be acknowledged. It emphasizes the plight of black people seeking and definitely losing their roots because of the oppression they have faced in slavery.

Of course, this subject is tough to watch. But in order to make people aware of the oppression of black people, and to make people aware of how that oppression rebrands itself today, content like this has to be made.

I’m glad the decision of a reboot of Roots was made.

By Asma Elgamal

Asma Elgamal is our Head News + Society Editor at The Tempest. She's currently a student at Harvard University.

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