Roots (1977) versus Roots (2016)

Roots (1977) versus Roots (2016)

I was initially skeptical about the Roots remake (especially because of the History Channel’s involvement) and watched the original again to see if an update seemed warranted. I found that while still riveting, it has many shortcomings. The original mini-series inaccurately depicts West African kingdoms, for example, and glosses over the participation of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade. Its set design and makeup look dated, and the acting is often poor. There are too many storylines centered on white characters, glaring historical inaccuracies, and slave agency in the Civil War is unexplored. (Please see my full review on Civil War Pop). Thus, I approached the new series with an open mind.

LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte in Roots (1977).
LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte in Roots (1977). Image from ABC News,

I was not completely disappointed. 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. The addition of black agency during the American Revolution is well handled, and the last episode focuses almost exclusively on the Civil War. (Along with African American involvement in the conflict, the show demonstrates that Confederates typically murdered surrendering black soldiers). There are fewer unnecessary white characters, trimming much of the fat off the original. The exceptional third episode realistically demonstrates the types of sacrifices the enslaved made to maintain their families, and yet how this tended to force them to remain “loyal” to their master, no matter how despicable he may have been. (More detailed dissections of each episode are available on my blog, History Headlines).

Yet the remake tries to appeal to a new generation by ratcheting up the action scenes (no surprise from the network that turned the Sons of Liberty into Justice League-like superheroes). Most slave resistance in this update is violent, with the enslaved getting retribution in unrealistic fashion and escaping punishment (à la Django Unchained). All the main characters get in on the action: Kunta Kinte eventually kills the overseer that whipped him; Fiddler downs two slave patrollers, dying while fighting to the last; Kizzy dispatches a would-be captor during an escape attempt; Chicken George offs the ex-Confederate that threatens his family. While this gives the show gusto, it creates the impression that only the enslaved who violently resisted were heroic.

What’s missing is more realistic and common day-to-day slave resistance. We see little of blacks manipulatively deceiving their masters, for example. (One exception is a clever scene in which characters fool their owner in order to procure Kunta the less physically demanding job of driver). While in reality the enslaved community most often obtained a sense of retribution by doing such things as hiding or breaking important items, poisoning masters to make them sick, or fooling them in ways that caused annoyances, Roots depicts none of this type of resistance. It also contains no scenes in which blacks defiantly slip away at night for the social, musical, and religious gatherings that were so important to the development of a culture apart from their enslaved identities, instilling the self esteem and hope that masters worked to destroy. The original Roots also featured little of this, but I hoped the remake would.

The original series’ character development is better, however. Understanding slavery requires exploring the master/slave relationship, and while the remake does this brilliantly in the third episode, the important relationship between Fiddler and his master is underdeveloped. In the original, Fiddler’s loyalty and subservience earn him a degree of favor, but he also secretly mocks and manipulates his master. Kunta’s famous whipping scene (in which he is forced to accept his slave name, “Toby”) is intercut with Fiddler privately begging his master to spare the young man. The lifetime of trust Fiddler has built can’t stop the beating, with his master casually dismissing his most trusted slave and indifferently reading the Bible while the whipping commences outside his view. Further, the scene reveals not only that Kunta is determined to hold on to his African identity but also that Fiddler has never truly been broken by a system in which he has lived his whole life. The original Roots movingly reveals this by simply having Fiddler tearfully tell Kunta, “There’s going to be another day.” All this makes the original whipping scene more powerful than in the remake, which opts for a more bloodily brutal scene, as a master that we’ve barely come to know watches from a distance. It’s a perfect example of how modern special effects are no match for good storytelling and character development.

Forest Whitaker as the Fiddler in Roots (2016).
Forest Whitaker as Fiddler in Roots (2016). Image from the History Channel.

More important, in the original Roots, retribution comes in less satisfying but more realistic fashion. For example, Kizzy clandestinely spits in the drink of the white childhood friend that betrayed her. In another scene, Kizzy discovers her father’s humble grave, tearfully scratching out “Toby” and replacing it with “Kunta Kinte.” She will not allow whites to take away her father’s identity even in death, but will also not let them take away hers and her children’s heritage. This is a less rousing triumph than when the remake has Kunta kill the overseer, but it is more emotional and realistic than what we have seen on television lately.

Recent shows like Mercy Street, Underground, and the Roots remake have done much to humanize the enslaved, accurately presenting them as anything but passive victims. Still, the new trend seemingly only celebrates African Americans that violently resisted enslavement. This is problematic, as the number of slaves who took such measures was relatively small until the Civil War, and this focus diminishes the accomplishments and courage of the more numerous enslaved individuals who successfully outwitted and subtly manipulated their masters, never letting their slave status define them or destroy their hope and self-esteem.

The enslaved community’s ability to manipulate and shape their world helped transform the Civil War. Secession was of course a product of white southern fears about the security of slavery, but the federal government’s initial war aim was solely the Union’s preservation. Yet from the beginning of the conflict, the enslaved sought to use it for their own purposes, with many fleeing to Union lines, providing valuable assistance, and starting a process that ultimately led to emancipation. In focusing on the Civil War, the last episode of Roots has the opportunity to explore the role of African Americans in the war’s transformation, yet disappointingly, it does not do so. Still, having Chicken George enlist in the USCTs and his son work with Union spies, does far more to show black agency in the Civil War than did the original. Here, in showing African Americans fighting the Confederacy, Roots is more realistic in its depiction of violent resistance to slavery.

A scene from the third episode.
Chicken George and Tom Lea in a scene from the third episode. Image from the History Channel.

Ultimately, the Roots remake gets a lot of things right, providing four episodes of riveting entertainment. In particular, the brilliant third installment is in many ways better than anything in the original (it could stand apart as a movie on its own). Yet if this updating intrigued you, I encourage revisiting the 1977 version (coming out this week in a new Blu-ray edition). Though flawed, it more fully develops its characters, and because it relies less on adrenaline-pumping action sequences, more realistically depicts the tragedies and triumphs of the enslaved.

Glenn David Brasher

Glenn David Brasher is an instructor of history at the University of Alabama, and the author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation (UNC Press, 2012) which received the 2013 Wiley Silver Award from the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter, @GlennBrasher.

One Reply to “Roots (1977) versus Roots (2016)”

  1. The new one is atrocious in every way. All Hollywood and no substance. I gave it until the end of the second episode, but no more. Going back to my VHS box set of the original thank you very much

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