In this age of niche networks and splintered audiences, there’s no controversy in noting that the updated version of the iconic “Roots” miniseries, simulcast May 30 on History, A&E, and Lifetime, is unlikely get the huge audience garnered by the original that aired on ABC nearly 40 years ago. Yet this new take on the saga should be viewed by as wide an audience as possible, from families to school kids to viewers interested in important chapters of the American saga. The lessons the new “Roots” teaches over the course of its eight hours, which air on four consecutive nights, are worth revisiting, and a number of outstanding performances enliven this retelling of the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants.
The word “lessons” in the previous sentence is used advisedly. This miniseries shares the same impulse to instruct and enlighten that was a hallmark of the original, which was part of a wave of mainstream ’70s programs — among them shows as divergent as “Holocaust” and “All in the Family” — that attempted to challenge audiences even as they questioned viewers’ understanding of their world.
The new “Roots” is essentially a series of interlinked TV movies, each one focused on a particular generation of the progeny of Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby). The transitions can be bumpy as new characters are established and relationships are quickly — and sometimes thinly — sketched out. That said, the first installment, directed by Phillip Noyce, starts out strongly and chronicles Kunta’s life in Gambia with a great deal of energy.
Though the horrors of the Middle Passage are depicted with sensitivity by Noyce (one of four directors on the project), much of the rest of the opener tells the story of Kunta and his world in the years before he landed as a slave in Maryland. Babatunde Olusanmokun makes a strong impression as Kunta’s father, Omoro, and Derek Luke is similarly memorable as that old movie standby, the tough drill instructor who ensures that his warriors have the skills they need to survive. The palpable detail and atmosphere of Kunta’s home and culture strongly ground everything that comes after, especially his pride, his strength and his continual resistance to the shackles imposed on him.
In America, Kunta never accepts his lot, and Kirby gives his character the hyper-aware energy of a man perpetually on the lookout for an opportunity to flee. “Why don’t they run?” he wonders as he gets his first glimpse of plantations with dozens of slaves and only one overseer. But like the men and women whose labor creates the wealth of the Waller plantation, Kunta finds that the bonds of family complicate matters, and the dangers of escape are many.
“You can’t buy a slave. You’ve got to make a slave,” says one tyrannical overseer who tries to break Kunta’s will. And in many ways, “Roots” is an exploration of the different ways in which individuals resist what is unjust and inhumane. A strong link to her ancestors grounds the implacable inner resistance of Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose), a house servant for Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a selfish gambler determined to raise himself into the upper tiers of Southern society. Like James Purefoy and Matthew Goode, who also play slave owners, Meyers ably fills out his entitled, frequently petulant role. But the focus here is on the black men and women who are, on some level, always on alert. Even as they create meaningful personal lives for themselves, they are frequently reminded that their families could be torn apart at any time.
The various reunions, homecomings, and tragedies are given shading and vitality by Emayatzy Corinealdi (Belle), Forest Whitaker (Fiddler), Erica Tazel (Matilda), and Noni Rose, who should be remembered during awards season for their terrific performances. Regé-Jean Page, who may have the biggest shoes to fill as Chicken George, a character Ben Vereen unforgettably portrayed in the original, delivers a quite creditable performance.
“Roots” has many stories and thematic elements to establish in a relatively short period of time, and it encompasses a wide range of moods. Some scenes have the underpinnings of comedy; at one point, Kunta questions the accuracy of the wedding tradition of jumping the broom (though he’s told it derives from African tradition, he’s never heard of it). Certain subplots are suffused with melodrama, while others depict savage assaults and heart-rending separations with the kind of documentary-style rawness that can make them difficult to watch.
Given the tonal balancing act, it’s almost surprising that “Roots” works as well, and as often, as it does. In particular, there’s panache in the handling of some repeated motifs — the raised baby, the family beads passed down to successive generations, the ways in which music serves as a form of resistance and elegy. That said, the miniseries has some didactic elements that can make for stagey and one-dimensional moments.
The fourth installment details military engagements during the Civil War with well-calibrated turbulence, but there isn’t enough time to give memorable detail to characters like slave owner Frederick Murray (Lane Garrison) and his fiancee, Nancy Holt (Anna Paquin). The quality of the acting in some supporting roles is variable, and there is dialogue that crosses the line from earnest to trite and stilted.
Yet the miniseries’ sincerity and its cumulative power can’t be denied. And when Laurence Fishburne, whose voice-overs link various chapters, arrives on screen in touching scenes that wrap up the saga, the emotional gravity is as palpable as Kunta and Kizzy’s enduring love for their families.
Ultimately, the timing couldn’t be better for the return of “Roots,” which is informed by new scholarship about the slave trade and the antebellum South. Race is at the forefront of the national conversation, and yet there are, as there were in the ’70s, generations of Americans who are uninformed about the true dimensions of slavery, or who prefer to remain willfully ignorant of its scope and lingering effects. All the more reason to bring back an unabashedly populist, accessible entertainment that, at times, works best on the level of myth and allegory.
Near the close of the fourth episode, Tazel’s Matilda speaks about the end of slavery and what its cruel persistence in America cost her family. What it has not cost them, “Roots” takes pains to point out, is their individuality or their love for each other, and the tears in her eyes reflect the depth of those enduring connections even as they remind viewers of her unspeakable losses. Kunta, Kizzy, George, and their descendants were slaves, but in “Roots,” they are never victims. Rather, they are folk heroes — and American originals.