Roots [miniseries] (USA, 2016)

bjr3shhrDirected by: Bruce Beresford, Thomas Carter, Philip Noyce, and Mario Van Peebles. Like most people, I saw the original when it came on TV sometime when I was a kid, but also like most people, that was a long time ago, and all I remember is LeVar Burton as Kunte Kinte, and Ed Asner in there somewhere as a racist. I also had a fleeting memory of James Earl Jones in there somewhere as Alex Haley, meeting the head of the Aryan Nation played by Marlon Brando. In my memory, Roots was preserved as an epic, amazing, long-form masterpiece about race in America, that was utterly crucial when it came out in the 70’s, and just as crucial today. The history nerd in me couldn’t help but be drawn in by the promise of the basic idea of Roots—that someone could trace their ancestry back, one by one, to the African village where the original slave ancestor was stolen. And the trail leading from Kunta Kinte to Alex Haley would unfold, at the same time, the story of race in America because, by necessity, each successive descendent would be a black person in America in that decade, and have to experience the changes, the violence, the breakthroughs, the setbacks, the whole convoluted mess of American history, up to the present day (or at least the 1960’s when Haley started writing). This was my memory of Roots the TV show. And then, for some reason, I stumbled across the book in a used bookstore last fall, and I spent the next 2 months reading it (I’m a bit of a slow reader, but also it’s 700 damn pages). For some reason, it really scratched the itch that I needed to scratch at the time. But I won’t lie—it was a bit of a slog in parts. And my main beef with it was the ending, the last 200 pages or so. The amount of time spent getting us invested in Kunta Kinte and his journey took about 400 pages. Then about 50 pages for Kizzy, then like 150 for Chicken George, and another 100 for Tom, then like the last 150 or so pages for every descendent from Tom (ending of slavery and the family’s new start in Tennessee in the 1870’s) to Alex Haley. There’s a lot of juicy stuff about American racial relations from Tom to Haley himself, and they basically skipped over it! And I know, it’s still 700 goddamn pages long, but I was really invested! He did such a great job that I didn’t care how long it was, I wanted to see that majestic unfolding of family history continue, in order, up to Alex Haley. Instead, it was extremely rushed and crammed through, so at the end it felt pretty anticlimactic. And the only reason I bring all that up is that this remake is the same. I thought it was 3 discs of 2 episodes each, so that at the end, when the Civil War has just ended, and we’re still with Chicken George and his son Tom, and then this magical, ghost-like apparition of Alex Haley (Laurence Fishburne) and Kizzy and Kunta Kinte, all walking hand in hand into the sunset, I thought…Well that’s a pretty weird way to end this episode. Oh well, let’s look at Disc 3. But there was no disc 3—that’s it! Done. They got Laurence Fishburne to be Alex Haley and he does almost nothing but walk across the CGI landscape with the ghosts of his relatives. Again, anticlimactic, even more so than the book. Don’t get me wrong—everyone should read this thing, everyone should see the original series, and if you’re so inclined, go see this thing too. It’s technically very good, nothing wrong with it, very powerful, etc. There’s some great acting in here, including Forest Whitaker (as always). And of course, I looked later, and it turns out the original was like this too, and the part that I’m remembering with James Earl Jones, that was Roots: The Next Generations, which went from the Civil War to modern day, so maybe I should check that out. And as a side note, I was a bit crestfallen to discover that there’s tremendous controversy over Alex Haley’s genealogical research was accurate, whether he’s actually related to Kunta Kinte at all, not to mention the fact that parts of the book were outright lifted from another novel altogether. But I guess that shit is neither here nor there, and it’s painfully obvious that whatever faults in the book for historical accuracy, there’s tremendous social value in the book as a work of mythology, a living thing that serves a social function to this day.

One response to “Roots [miniseries] (USA, 2016)

  1. Pingback: The Birth of a Nation (USA, 2016) | Offhand Reviews·

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