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ST. FRANCISVILLE, LA. — Cannons boomed, shaking the leaves off 50-foot trees. “Ready, I need fire on that hill!” an urgent voice yelled. Weapons were reloaded. Exhausted infantrymen — black, white, young, old — were splayed around a muddy pit. “Watch your muzzles, gentlemen,” their leader called. “Don’t blow your friend’s face off!”
In a wooded grove in this town near Baton Rouge, La., a television crew was meticulously recreating the brutal Civil War battle of Fort Pillow, for a remake of “Roots,” the seminal mini-series about slavery. The carnage in the fight was significant: After Union soldiers surrendered, the Confederates disproportionately took white soldiers hostage as prisoners of war and slaughtered hundreds of black soldiers, sending survivors into the slave trade. This massacre was not in the original “Roots,” broadcast in 1977, which is exactly why the producers of the new one chose to include it.
It is one of many unexpected historical details put onscreen in “Roots,” which will air over four nights starting on Memorial Day. It will be simulcast on the History, Lifetime and A&E channels, with a sprawling cast that includes Laurence Fishburne; Forest Whitaker; Anika Noni Rose; Anna Paquin; the rapper T.I.; and the English newcomer Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte, the central character. The revival aims to deliver a visceral punch of the past to a younger demographic, consumed anew by questions of race, inequality and heritage. With a crew of contemporary influencers — Will Packer (“Straight Outta Compton”) is a producer; Questlove oversaw the music — the hope is to recontextualize “Roots” for the Black Lives Matter era, a solemn and exacting feat.
“I’d be lying if I said I had zero trepidation and nervousness,” said LeVar Burton, who began his career, indelibly, as the slave Kunta Kinte, and who serves as a producer on the modern version. “But I do believe that we have a lot to contribute to the very important conversation of race in America, and how it continues to hold us back as a society.”
“Roots” is based on the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 book by Alex Haley, in which he traced his own ancestors back to Gambia in West Africa, followed their path to the United States as slaves and forward into freedom. It occupies a singular place in American cultural history and remains one of the most popular television series ever: Its finale, on ABC, was watched by an estimated 100 million people. And it marked one of the first times that a mass viewing audience was asked to contemplate the legacy of slavery from an African-American perspective. In its wake, generations took a new interest in their own genealogy; even the word “roots” came to be associated with identity.
So why remake it?
That was the question that Mr. Burton and many others asked of Mark M. Wolper, an executive producer and the main force behind it. His father, David L. Wolper, produced the original “Roots.” As the rights were passed down, the younger Mr. Wolper rebuffed many remake offers, he said. But when he tried to watch it anew with his children a few years ago, he came to a surprising conclusion: His father’s “Roots” was no longer good enough. It didn’t connect.
It was a landmark, to be sure, but its performance style and production values are dated. “The makeup is terrrrrible,” Mr. Burton said.
And with nearly 40 years of scholarship since the original, there was new information about the atrocities of the era, the societies of western Africa and the daily life of the enslaved. As much as it was presented as a history lesson, the first “Roots” got some things wrong.
In this version, accuracy is at the forefront, Mr. Wolper said one day last fall, in his production office in New Orleans, where the walls were covered with images of slave ships, plantation houses and African beads. “I’m not being modest here,” he said. “We have to make it better than the first ‘Roots.’ Otherwise, why bother?”
He was midway into a four-month shoot, with episodes being filmed in Louisiana and South Africa. (The original was shot mostly on the Hunter Ranch in California, on property that was for many years by 20th Century Fox.)
Though the filmmakers wouldn’t disclose the budget, this “Roots” is among the costliest productions that A&E Networks has done, said Nancy Dubuc, its president and chief executive. (A&E Networks is the parent company of Lifetime and History.) They have had hits like the 2012 History series “Hatfields & McCoys,” but Ms. Dubuc said that given its legacy and the challenges of creating event-worthy programming, “Roots,” another History production, “has to stand head and shoulders above anything we’ve ever done before.”
The creators hired historians as advisers, like Stephanie Smallwood, an associate professor at the University of Washington and an expert on the Middle Passage, the treacherous, monthslong journey of the enslaved across the Atlantic.
In the ’70s, Dr. Smallwood said, the basics of the slave trade, like its size, were still emerging. Now, research has revealed that “it’s not just the largest, but it’s the most complex migration in modern history,” she said, adding that there is also a more nuanced understanding of its human cost. “It doesn’t rely solely on the symbolism of shackles. That’s a very profound part of the experience, but I think we also think more in terms of the social violence of being separated from your entire genealogy in Africa.”
That is a rift “Roots” tries to highlight, with a new understanding about the real Kunta Kinte, now said to be an educated young man from a prominent, well-to-do family, who lived not in a remote village (as depicted in the 1977 version) but on the shore of a bustling trading post. “He spoke probably four languages,” Mr. Wolper said.
His characterization changed, too: While Mr. Burton’s is a headstrong naïf, the new Kunta is “a little tougher, a little edgier,” Mr. Wolper said, in what he hoped would be a more contemporary spin. Though one of the iconic images of the original was Mr. Burton in shackles, in promotions for this one — “focused thematically more on defiance, resistance and the ability to overcome the shackles of the body,” Mr. Wolper said — Kunta Kinte is shown breaking through his chains.
For Mr. Kirby, the 26-year-old actor who plays him, it was intimidating, from the audition on. “I spent more time worrying about what would happen if I got the part, than actually preparing for it,” he said. He had seen “Roots” a few years earlier, after his mother gave him the boxed set, “and I was still impacted by it,” he said. He first heard of Kunta, he recalled, as a schoolboy: “It was a name that people used to curse me, if ever my hair was particularly messy.”
After he landed the role, Mr. Kirby and Mr. Burton had an emotional meeting. Filming the scene of Kunta being whipped until he says his slave name, Toby — a scene seared in many people’s memory — Mr. Kirby drew on Mr. Burton’s words. He said that before he made “Roots,” he was a mighty boy, and afterward, “a mighty man.” (In the retelling, Kunta Kinte is played by one actor; in the original, John Amos played him as an adult.)
Describing the shoot months later in a phone interview, Mr. Kirby said: “‘Intense’ is an understatement.”
“It wasn’t all horrible,” he added. “There were some very beautiful moments, and moments of joy and elation, but there were also moments, and I think it was necessary, of torment and pain.”
Mario Van Peebles, the director of the second episode, said, “There were days, honestly, where I had to go home and sometimes have a good cry and say, God, I am so blessed that these people found their way out of it.”
For much of the cast, “Roots” felt personal. “As a young brown person, it’s almost a rite of passage,” said the actor Regé-Jean Page, who grew up between London and Harare, Zimbabwe. “Somebody will sit you down in front of ‘Roots’ and say, ‘you need to watch this.’” (Characters from “Roots” have also made regular appearances in hip-hop over the years, like “King Kunta” by Kendrick Lamar.)
Mr. Page plays Chicken George, the grandson of Kunta (Ben Vereen in the original), and the role meant a heightened sense of responsibility, he said, “because there is a story to be told that is underrepresented and misrepresented, again and again.” In an interview on the Civil War set in St. Francisville, La., he spoke not in his own voice but in his character’s Southern accent. The part was “massively hard to shake off,” he said, months afterward, still clad in George’s shoes.
Recently there has been a small burst of entertainment, from the Academy Award-winning “12 Years a Slave” to the television series “Underground,” that has shown other sides of antebellum life, even as there is some pushback to revisiting that era. “I know there are a lot of people who are tired of the slave narrative,” said Ms. Rose, the Tony Award-winning actress who plays Kizzy, Kunta’s daughter. “With regard to black people, I think they are tired of seeing themselves enchained and downtrodden.” But those depictions, she added, were often one-sided, and designed to humiliate. “I think what it is time to move past is shame, embarrassment, guilt.” Anybody who survived slavery did so “with a fortitude of superhero proportions.”
In researching her role, she listened to slave narratives collected in the Library of Congress, but new understanding about Gambian life was also “invaluable,” she said. There was “civilization, scholarship, lineage and royalty before the Africans were stolen and brought to these shores,” she said.
A costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, visualized that connection, linking the indigo dyes of Africa to the dusty blues — made from the same indigo — of the South. She found evidence of how valuable seamstresses were in the slave trade. “In the war, they were making cloth for the soldiers and for the plantations — that part, nobody ever deals with,” she said, adding: “That’s why it’s important to tell this story, and that’s the reason to be detailed about it.”
After the original mini-series, Mr. Haley was accused of botching some of the research in his book and of plagiarism. (He settled one lawsuit.) But Mr. Haley, who died in 1992, was open about his novelization and felt he was telling a broader truth. “He described it as ‘faction,’ a combination of fact and fiction,” said Matthew F. Delmont, a historian at Arizona State University and the author of the forthcoming book “Making Roots: A Nation Captivated.” (A spokeswoman for A&E said that the new “Roots” was developed “with the cooperation of the Haley family estate,” although it was not directly involved.)
The new “Roots” does not delve into the lives of the white characters as often as the 1977 version did. And the producers aimed for diversity behind the camera; they gave the directors — Mr. Van Peebles, Thomas Carter (“Save the Last Dance”) and the Australians Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger”) and Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”) — control over the look and feel of each episode. It has already been screened at the White House.
Almost no one involved with “Roots” imagines it will have the same seismic impact, let alone the ratings, of the original — the culture and media landscape is too different. But on a much smaller scale, it could still succeed, as the original did, in making history “less abstract,” Dr. Delmont said.
That has already happened for Mr. Kirby, the young star. “I don’t know where I come from past my grandparents,” who are Jamaican, he said. “So the idea that that kind of knowledge of self could empower you so much, really spoke to me.” He has started researching his roots. “I’m hoping that will give me some insight,” he said, “into who I am today.”
Continue reading the main story
Is the Roots remake better than the original? ›
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.What is the summary of Roots? ›
Roots: The Saga of an American Family is a 1976 novel written by Alex Haley. It tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent, sold into slavery in Africa, and transported to North America; it follows his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley.How many parts are in Roots 2016? ›
In the United States, Roots aired in four installments of approximately two hours each, from May 30 to June 2, 2016, on History, A&E, and Lifetime.Is Kunta Kinte based on a real person? ›
Who is Kunta Kinte? Kunta Kinte is a fictional African slave taken to 18th-century America in the novel and adapted TV series Roots. Based on the character and his experience, Kunta Kinte is also used as a derogatory name for an African person who has recently immigrated to a new place.How much of Roots was plagiarized? ›
Walker's book had been based on the life of her great-grandmother, a slave in Georgia in the era before and after the Civil War. Dr. Alexander, a prominent author and scholar, claimed that parts of Haley's book, Roots, had been “largely copied” from her own, citing thirty-five examples of plagiarism.Who played older Kunta Kinte in the original Roots? ›
Roots (TV Mini Series 1977) - John Amos as Older Kunta Kinte, Toby - IMDb.What is the central theme of roots? ›
Kunta Kinte's story illustrates an enduring theme of African-American life: the conflict between assimilation and separatism. In Africa, Kunta would never have been confronted with this issue, but in the American colonies he is subject to the powerful pressures of assimilation.What are the key themes and messages of roots? ›
- Contrasting Regions: Africa and America.
- Women and Femininity.
- Memory and the Past.
Introduction. A root is the part of the plant that develops underground and helps anchor the plant firmly in the soil. It absorbs water and minerals from the soil and conducts them to the stem through the xylem of the plant.Is Roots 2016 based on a true story? ›
As a historical novel, Roots' essential narrative echoed the experience of many African slaves and their families – but it is now widely agreed to be a novel and a work of imagination and invention.
How many episodes of Roots 2016 are there? ›What plantation was Roots filmed at? ›
An estimated five weeks of shooting for parts of Episode 4 -- including some Civil War scenes -- also took place at Madewood Plantation in Napoleonville.How old was Kunta Kinte when he died? ›
Samuel Barber III fatally shot 40-year-old Kunta Kinte Riddick during a confrontation.What was the controversy with Roots? ›
Alex Haley, the author of the celebrated book, said it was based on his own family history. But Haley, who died in 1992, was famously accused of plagiarizing parts of the Pulitzer-winning "Roots" — and settled a very public lawsuit brought against him by another writer.Why did they cut off Kunta Kinte foot? ›
After being recaptured during the last of his four escape attempts, the slave catchers gave him a choice: he would be castrated or have his right foot cut off. He chose to have his foot cut off, and the men cut off the front half of his right foot.Did Kunta Kinte get his foot cut off? ›
This scene was particularly horrific, as the two slave catchers offer runaway slave Kunta Kinte the “choice” between being castrated or having the front of his right foot cut off. He “chooses” the foot, and one of the men brings down his axe on it.How old was Kunta Kinte when he was captured? ›
Also known as 'the slave who fought back', Kunta Kinte's story starts in 1767 when he was captured in the surrounding forests of his home village at the age of 17, sold into slavery and taken to America.How much of Alex Haley's Roots is true? ›
Answer and Explanation: Alex Haley's 1976 work Roots is not based on a true story. Haley has stated that Roots is a historical fiction novel since it is a fictitious story but is based in a historically factual era.How old was Kizzy in Roots? ›
She perpetuates the dreams and teachings of her father in the rearing of her son. Young Kizzy (Age 15) Featured in Night 2 is played by E'myri Lee Crutchfield.What happened to the real Kunta Kinte? ›
The real Kunta was sold into slavery in 1767, despite his family's middle-class status.
Where is Kunta Kinte buried? ›
Author Alex Haley and actor LeVar Burton visit the grave of Haley's ancestor, the slave Kunte Kinte, in Spottsylvania County, Virginia.How many hours is the original Roots? ›
The movie roots is nine hours and 48 minutes long.How many hours was the original Roots series? ›
|Running time||45/90 minutes per episode|
|Production company||Wolper Productions|
|Distributor||Warner Bros. Television|
PLEASE NOTE:ROOTSis rated TV-14, L, V, S. It contains intense language of the time period, violence and sexual violence and therefore we do not recommend it for children under the age of 14. ROOTSincludes scenes that may be very difficult for some viewers to watch.Is Roots appropriate for high school? ›
Common Sense says. Classic miniseries is essential viewing for mature teens.