The “new” ROOTS: Historical Fiction Done Right. 

Old Sturbridge Village, in their Facebook feed today, asked guests for their impressions of the new ROOTS. I’ve been watching it closely this week and comparing to both the novel (all 899 pages of it!) and the original 1977 tv “event.” I have vague recollections of the original playing on our console tv in the living room; as an adult I read the book several years ago and have watched the 1977 miniseries in parts, but not recently. So the prospect of a new production piqued my interest, and this week I am making a rare point of scheduling tv time specifically to view it uninterrupted.

“Your name is your spirit; your name is your shield.” Screen shot from my initial viewing . Melanie C. Stringer photo.


 It’s an emotional journey to watch the horrors of slavery in such vivid detail at any time, and despite years of study in American history and reading numerous well-documented scholary works devoted to the enslaved people who built much of what became America, it never gets easier. And never ceases to hold my attention.

Here are some of my preliminary thoughts, albeit in rough form, halfway through the series. I’ll be updating this post later in the week, when I’ve had a chance to take in the entire production. (Episode Three airs tonight): 

My initial reaction? It’s quite good, and clearly reflects four more decades of scholarship. That’s key, and makes me very happy. I went into the first viewing not knowing what to expect nor having any insider information about the production aside from the tidbit that LeVar Burton was co-producer. A good sign, but no guarantee. 

First, the violence is graphic and unflinching and it accurately reflects much of what I have read in primary sources for decades. The on-screen warning about the content, strangely, emphasizes the “language of the time” and mentions violence secondarily, as if to acknowledge that today’s audiences are far more offended by hate speech than by senseless brutality…perhaps because, in 2016, we often are. I couldn’t help noticing that the voiceover reading the warning pauses before completing the statement with, “…and violence,” as if a mere afterthought. I was glad to see, however, that the warning was revised for Episode Two to include “sexual violence,” likely due to the fact that rape, while implied in the first installment, is more blatantly illustrated in the second part. The brutality of slavery is inescapable and authentically delivered. Even those who direct their own employees–the actual perpetrators of the most direct violence–sometimes wince at the execution of their own directives, almost stunned at ruthlessness, and that seems deliberately telling. Male characters are at times shown reacting with visceral, uncontrolled shudders and cries, and are protective of the women who, it must be said, are often–but not always–portrayed as stoic by comparison.

The story still feels extremely male-centric, but that is unavoidable given the source novel’s content. The 2016 version is, however, more inclusive of women’s experiences than the 1977 version. Women, such as those on the ship during the horrific middle passage, play key roles in attempting escape and make their own decisions when given the opportunity. However, the women portrayed are not generally prone to behaving in ways that society of those times and places would squelch, and still tend to publicly defer to men as their cultural environment dictates. We are not left feeling the female characters have been transported to colonial plantations straight from a seminar at Berkeley. With the exception of the occasional Disneyesque overacting of a few extremely young actors, the cast feels genuinely of the times and places where the ROOTS story unfolds.

While we’re on the subject, I’m glad that most of the actors are relatively unknown, so that the story feels more genuine as opposed to the “star-studded” casting of the previous version. 1977’s miniseries of course starred the unforgettable and, at the time, unknown LeVar Burton as young Kunta. Burton’s portrayal was so compelling it may have worked against him ever since, being typecast to the point that he had to get creative with other projects to live it down. But the 1977 version made the mistake of leaning on celebrity. Perhaps it was necessary to draw in viewers during a time when segregation and bussing were still fresh in our minds and precious few black performers were given any semblance of respect. But the casting that first time around was loud and disjointed. It featured not one or two, but numerous well-known actors from 60s and 70s tv shows. Robert Reed and Ed Asner, Moses Gunn, Lorne Greene, Esther Rolle, as well as OJ Simpson, Cicely Tyson, Sandy Duncan…the “celebrity” element in the original always felt like a huge distraction and undermined the gravity of the story. It’s hard to relate to Lou Grant as serial rapist slaver captain, or pixie-cut Sandy Duncan looking like Peter Pan in panniers. Thank goodness this time the cast are fresh and strong and ego-free. Further, a good deal of the once-rampant historical mythology of American slavery has since been rectified; some very questionable “scholarship” made more than one appearance in the first attempt at ROOTS as cinema.

My personal copy of Alex Haley’s ROOTS: The Saga of an American Family. Melanie C. Stringer photo.

That is not to say there aren’t problems with the new version. However, they (so far) tend to be somewhat minor:

Some scenes seem to be invented for this version, although they still fit with the storyline, so that may not really be a problem. I read the novel, and the differences don’t seem to have interfered much with the heart of the story or the characters (remembering that the novel itself is heavily-researched but still historical fiction).

Some of the actors, especially the younger or tertiary players are occasionally too modern in their posturing. “Missy” stands out as very unconvincing and entirely a product of the 21st century. Overall, the dialogue is good but includes a few anachronistic expressions (notably: “Are you okay?” and “I got this.”) which I took to be ad libs by actors caught up in the action of some very tense and charged scenes. The costumes are decent but not without some glaring fit problems on gentry and especially on “Mrs. Waller.” There’s a scandalous lack of petticoats on wealthy, otherwise well-dressed women. I spotted some drawers on little girls long before they were commonly worn. While the cinematography is stunning, it’s pretty obvious that they filmed far from the initial 18th century American setting in Virginia; credits indicate Louisiana and it shows prominently in the landscape of swamps and cypress that look more Bayou than Tidewater. 

These problematic details are triumphantly overshadowed by the key actors, all of whom are consistently outstanding. I am particularly impressed by everyone in the Kinte family; the casting was superb, and Malachi Kirby’s face alone tells the entire story. Indeed, his physicality is so engrossing, so convincing, so utterly in the moment at all times, that the viewer is liable to believe he IS Kunta Kinte, and not just a highly-skilled, extraordinarily gifted actor. It is safe to say one might watch the entire first two episodes with the sound muted and still feel every nuance of Kunta’s experience.

The Boston Globe ran a quick piece on ROOTS this week, and Globe staff writer Matthew Gilbert and I clearly agree on the caliber of acting:

“As Kunta Kinte, Malachi Kirby projects both intelligence and naivete, the latter as he asks “Why don’t they run?” upon seeing slaves in the fields for the first time. His performance, as he maintains the body language and speaking patterns of Kunta’s African youth, is strong enough to hover over the entire miniseries, even though he’s only in the first two parts.”

(Full story here

https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2016/05/30/newcomers-give-roots-strength/zFdK0G5yrORilvqv4iguZJ/story.html

The rest of the primary cast in the first half–Omoro and Binta, Belle, Fiddler (hey, Forest Whitaker, I almost forgot that’s you playing him!) and teenaged Kizzy–are all fantastic. Kunta’s parents, Omoro and Binta, exude love and a hopeful yet strict and protective relationship with each other and their son. Fiddler’s resolve, and paternal, almost reflexive guidance of the “ornery Mandinka” evolves into a loyalty unmatched by any other. Belle’s steady but firm demeanor with the ungrateful invalid Kunta is impressively gentle as she stands her ground but does not relinquish her sense of duty and, later, love. Kizzy is her Fa’s daughter, and the viewer knows it. I see numerous well-deserved awards and powerful leading roles in the near future for these fine talents. 

The more I ponder the question, however, the more I come back to this: 

Damn! It is really, really well done! 

You see, I’m a skeptic with a long history of finding major flaws with a lot of historical fiction. I’m the gal who needs to read the book before watching the movie, every time. It’s just a RULE of mine. And, very often, historical fiction is poorly-researched and dwells too much in the land of the time it was written rather than the era it is alleged to portray. Yep, I’m THAT person. It’s hard to please me when it comes to mixing my two favorite things–history and literature–and I say this, knowing full well how that must sound to anyone who knows that I’m a historian who travels the US presenting educational living history in the persona of one of our country’s best-known authors of historical fiction, Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

But I digress.

I watched the first episode three times in immediate succession to make certain I absorbed every moment as thoroughly as possible, and couldn’t find a hitch. Rather, I kept finding more details that served to enrich the storytelling. While the second installment had some jarring modernities, it still held well for the most part. Caveat: what is UP with that tune playing at Kunta and Belle’s wedding, anyway? Far too 21st century-pop-song-with-a-tempo-change for my taste. Worse, it took away from the authenticity of the scene, serving to make Kunta’s objection to broom jumping sound like a PSA instead of a natural reaction to a phony “tradition.”
But, if that’s the worst I can find in the first four hours of this labor of love, then all signs point to the next four being more than worth the wait.

In case it wasn’t clear, I’m looking forward to the next two installments. How about you?

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