Debuting on May 30 simultaneously on History, A&E and Lifetime and airing over four consecutive nights, the stunningly visceral new version of Roots probably will not get anywhere near the 130 million viewers who the original series drew in 1977.
However, this is a very different era in both the TV landscape and in the culture and, while A+E Networks is certainly hoping for big ratings, the $50 million, eight-hour Roots reimagining is about more than numbers. In this era of the Black Lives Matter movement, the prison industrial complex and the last year of the administration of the nation’s first African-American president, the ambitious epic is a profoundly powerful story that has new resonance for our times.
With a different director helming each night, the new version of Roots aims to speak directly to 2016. Often brutal in its depiction of the very brutal and vile system of slavery in America, Roots 2016 acts more like four interlocking two-hour independent films. Each in command of his own piece of the saga based on Alex Haley’s 1976 bestseller, Phillip Noyce, Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter and Bruce Beresford weaving a commanding tale individually and collectively from the abduction in Africa of Kunta Kinte, played with stunning dignity by British actor Malachi Kirby, all the way across the decades to the Civil War era and the uneasy alliance between Union soldiers and the slaves fighting besides them.
In a year that has seen Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation electrify Sundance and being prepped for Oscar contention by Fox Searchlight and Underground shatter ratings records for WGN America, the 2016 Roots is less of a landmark as its 1977 version was. What the miniseries starring Kirby, Anika Noni Rose, the very strong Regé-Jean Page, Erica Tazel, Forest Whitaker and Lawrence Fishburne does have is a commanding presence as poignant and compelling television that you should watch this holiday weekend.
This is not sugarcoated slavery but the raw truth of an evil system with a lot of disturbing violence and the N-word frequently and true to the times coming out of the mouths of masters and even children without hesitation. Part of that raw truth, as I say in my video review above, is also the fact there is no singular hero here but the connection of family, the human spirit and the dignity of those who will not give it up despite a system that literally is set up to beat it out of them.
Besides what is literally on the screen, Roots 2016 also is a deepening of the larger discussion of the great horror that institutionalized racism — all racism, actually — and slavery was, socially and economically, and the wounds still just beneath the American body politic today.
Click on my video review of the new version of Roots and tell us if you will begin watching on Memorial Day.
This review was originally published May 26.