If you watch the opening episode of that 1977 production, which aired not much more than a decade after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, you’ll notice that after 10 minutes or so the camera has left behind the saga of young Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) in Gambia and jumped to Annapolis, Maryland.
In Annapolis we meet a bewigged Ed Asner in the role of Captain Thomas Davies. Davies is about to sign on to pilot the ship, the “Lord Ligonier,” that will carry the kidnapped Kunta Kinte away from family and freedom forever. The captain is disturbed (actually, it might be more accurate to say he seems nonplussed) when he’s informed that the ship will be transporting a cargo of slaves.
Often, in fact, we find ourselves spending time with this unhappy man rather than sticking to the perspective of the slaves who happen to be living and dying in an American hell. Yet in Alex Haley’s book, the source of both the ABC and the new History adaptations, he’s referred to only in a sentence at the very end. His function in the original miniseries, perhaps, was to provide viewers with a moral compass, the needle of which would quiver in the direction of enlightenment. And perhaps, at the time, millions of viewers needed this. Today, it can feel as if Walter Cronkite or some trusted national spokesman for decency was occasionally being brought in from the wings to check up on things.
So: times change. History’s Roots arrives in a period in which the African-American narrative is being retold in greater detail – the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, WGN’s Underground, the upcoming Birth of a Nation.
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This Roots, in addition to being very well acted, benefits greatly from better, modern production values, including location shooting in South Africa. (The original, shot in California, has the scrubby vegetation and harsh sunlight any viewer above a certain will recognize: It’s the same versatile but drab terrain that served as South Korea on CBS’s M*A*S*H.) It’s more graphic and more punishingly intense as an account of how plantation owners brutalized slaves to surrender their identities – to become property.
The first night, directed by Philip Noyce, is perhaps the most powerful – the most visceral – of the four episodes. It’s an almost literal blow-by-blow account of how Kunta Kinte’s captors and then owners set out to demolish his sense of self. And yet the oppressors never succeed in extinguishing the man’s essential, defiant pride (the key to Malachi Kirby‘s impressive performance). Being led to his master’s farm in Virginia, he can’t comprehend why so many black men have accepted this servitude. Why aren’t they joining together in an uprising to free themselves and escape? He’s given the meaningless new name “Toby,” refuses to acknowledge it, and is horribly whipped. He will suffer much more than that.
By the time we meet grandson Chicken George (Regé-Jean Page), who is born a slave and lives to see the defeat of the Confederacy, that internal defiance remains, but beneath a surface of amiability and enterprise.
By this point the cruelties of the slave existence have been compounded with disgusting ironies: George’s chief value to his owner, who is also his father, is his skill at training game cocks, and the old man (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) regards George with the satisfied air of a man pleased with his property – both George and the fowl – and a vague touch of paternal pride.
George actually gains his freedom before the war, but his wife and children remain in slavery, and his decision to reunite with them – the single most moving segment in the entire production – puts him in danger of being recaptured and auctioned off again.
All of which is a way of saying that this new Roots manages to go deep.
Roots premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET and airs nightly through Thursday on History.