Marisa Guthrie, Hollywood Reporter, May 25, 2016
Forty years after the original gripped half the nation (literally), a more violent and more accurate remake is here, gambling on big stars including Forest Whitaker and Anna Paquin and the unresolved emotional core of America’s toughest conversation: “He was calling me a n–er, but at the end of the scene he was in tears.”
“Forgive me if this day becomes slightly emotional for me,” says LeVar Burton. “Being here in this house, at this particular time in history. This is a moment.”
This house being the White House. This moment being a daylong event–hosted by Valerie Jarrett, the president’s closest adviser–devoted to A+E Networks’ Roots, a reimagining of the blockbuster 1977 miniseries about several generations of a slave family. The four-part, eight-hour project will debut on Memorial Day (May 30), airing simultaneously on History, Lifetime and A&E. The White House screening and panel discussion is a key step toward making Roots not just a successful television show but also an old-fashioned, watercooler-style collective cultural event.
Burton was a 19-year-old student at USC when he starred in the original as Kunta Kinte, the Mandinka warrior who is kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery in America. Burton now is an executive producer of the new version, passing on the career-defining lead role to 26-year-old Malachi Kirby, a second-generation Londoner whose grandparents came from Jamaica.
Burton recalls hearing about plans for a remake in October 2013 at a DGA screening of 12 Years a Slave. “Russell Simmons came up to me and said, ‘You know they’re remaking Roots.’ And I thought, ‘Really? Why?'”
A couple days later, Mark Wolper, whose late father, David, brought the original Roots to television, called to enlist Burton as an executive producer on a new version.
“He told me that he had tried to show Roots, the original, to his son, who was 16 at the time,” says Burton. “And his son said to him, ‘I get it, Dad, why this is important. But it’s a little like your music: I know how much you like it, but it really doesn’t speak to me.’ ”
This was fall 2013, in the nascent months of the Black Lives Matter movement. At that moment, Wolper and Burton simply were motivated by an opportunity to bridge a generational chasm. “There is a whole generation of Americans who don’t know the story, don’t have a connection to Roots,” adds Burton. “It was still very daunting to even contemplate. But I felt that there was merit in trying. And if I could help make it as good as it could be, it would be much better than just sitting on the sidelines.”
“There were problems across the board–writers, actors, producers, cinematographers–they all had hesitations,” says Wolper. “It was like, ‘It’s too iconic, it’s too political, it’s too whatever.'”
Dubuc’s team at History wanted to back away from the deal. “It was nerve-racking,” she says. “Everybody knows the risk of association.” But knowing how few properties could match Roots‘ name-brand appeal and potential to break out, Dubuc pressed on.
“How can we be special? How can we say something about our brand, our company, our storytelling capabilities? Those projects are few and far between,” she says.
“Many black people don’t know the details of some of this history because we don’t teach it in general,” says Carter. “We know that there was slavery, but the particulars of the brutality of American slavery–the destruction of family, the dehumanization, things that have continued to affect us–we just don’t even talk about it.”
That is beginning to change; social media, the exposure of police brutally (much of it caught on iPhones), overwhelmingly lopsided incarceration rates among minorities, and the willingness of Hollywood to embark on projects like Roots is advancing the racial justice dialogue.
“The common perception is, ‘Oh, there have been so many slave movies,’ ” says Packer. “Really? Have there really been that many? How do you get, especially that younger generation, to embrace this? Because at the end of the day, that’s why we’re all here. That’s the challenge. Will it have the same impact as the original? Will 85 percent of households be watching? No, never again will that happen. But it can have a different impact. These filmmakers did an amazing job of not shying away from the atrocities. But it’s not just about the pain. It’s really about courage and survival. It’s inspirational, and it’s aspirational, and those are the elements that I want to get our youth to embrace. That’s the message.”
The realism of the brutality and sadism in this version of Roots often can be difficult to watch. The racist language–including frequent use of the N-word–is jarring. Dubuc says that there wasn’t much hand-wringing about the N-word. “We don’t have a choice to use it or not use it. If we don’t use it, it wouldn’t be authentic to what actually happened.
“We wanted to make sure it wasn’t gratuitous and that we never felt like, ‘OK, enough,’ ” she continues. “And that was a nuance that I relied on the directors and the actors and the writers to hit. But I think it would have been almost more inflaming not use it. It would be denying what happened.”
Nonetheless, for many of the actors and directors, making Roots often was wrenching. Kirby recalls an especially brutal scene with a white actor (he won’t say which one), but “it was a scene where brutality was inflicted on me, and he was calling me a n–er. And at the end of it, he is in tears, and he apologizes to me. And that was beautiful. There is a beautiful hope that comes out of that, that even as an actor that he feels the need to apologize just speaks volumes of the times that we’re living in right now. Yes, racism still exists, and ignorance still exists. But that’s part of the reason we’re retelling this story, to speak to those people and hopefully a new generation that if they don’t learn, they will continue in yesterdays.”
Adds Van Peebles: “It’s tough. There were times when I was like, ‘This is some bizarre alternate reality.’ It’s hard to believe we actually did this; that this was something we endured. This was a few hundred years ago. It’s some insane shit. It’s much easier to not deal with it.”
In one particularly revealing scene, 8-year-old Kizzy is having a tea party with the daughter of her slave-owner master who has become her best friend and another white girl who is hostile to the girls’ interracial friendship.
“How weird is it to be directing three beautiful little girls together and go, ‘OK, now this is where you call her a n–er lover?’ ” says Van Peebles. “So I would tell her, ‘OK, now remember your lines, and now absolutely forget all your lines and never say them again!’ They were like 8, 9. In between takes, they’d go play together and laugh and giggle. There were times when I had to just be the filmmaker in order to function on it. And there were times when I could just sit back and be ashamed and affected and moved and inspired as a human being.”
Van Peebles’ son Mandela also has a pivotal role in the same installment, playing the biracial son of a slave and a white plantation owner. (To avoid the perception of nepotism, Mandela used his first and middle name–Mandela Mali–during the casting process.) He is shot in the back while attempting to flee the plantation. It is a scene that recalls so many recent shootings of black men.
“It wasn’t something I was braced to do,” says Van Peebles of working with his son on such a highly charged scene. “The way we shot the assassination and the way it reads is ultimately so unfortunately timeless. It’s going to be hard to watch this for some people–especially me as a parent–and not think about where we are now.”
A+E executives certainly hope that is the takeaway. They’ve left nothing to chance, rolling out events like the one at the White House. There have been others: at historically black colleges including Howard University, at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and at the annual convention of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in April in New York. Sharpton has a big megaphone thanks to his Sunday MSNBC show and a nationally syndicated radio program that airs in more than 100 cities.
“I will be talking it up,” says Sharpton. “If we can create the conversation, [Roots] will not only get a wide viewership, it will evolve the discussions about race–hopefully, from yelling at each other to really talking about the pain and what we’re going to do in the post-Obama era.”