On Monday, nearly 40 years after the original miniseries became a cultural phenomenon, a new version of author Alex Haley’s epic family drama “Roots” debuted on three networks simultaneously amid considerable hype and host of rave reviews.
The new “Roots” will not likely reach the same commercial heights as the first iteration. Only the Super Bowl stands out as required viewing for a truly broad swath of American audiences these days, and the original “Roots” series, broadcast on ABC, still ranks as the most watched miniseries in television history, with over half of Americans owning televisions at the time tuning in for its finale.
Still, even if its not aiming to surpass the original’s success, this “Roots” is by no means resting on its laurels. Sporting top-notch production values, a formidable cast and a narrative style that is both more visceral and unflinching than the 1977 version, the new series should reach a whole new audience who might find the older interpretation dated and compromised. The new “Roots” has both the blessing of the ABC edition’s stars and producers (LeVar Burton, who became an overnight star for his turn as warrior-turned-slave Kunta Kinte in the ‘77 version, is an executive producer on this one) and the critics, who are lauding this new take’s verisimilitude and willingness to eschew the trappings of traditional television movie-making.
But “Roots” version 2.0 is not without its detractors. Hip-hop star Snoop Dogg is chief among them. In a video posted on Instagram the same night “Roots” debuted, the rapper railed against the project and the proliferation of slave narratives as of late.
“I don’t understand America. They just want to keep showing the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But guess what? We’re taking the same abuse,” he said in a profanity-laden rant. ”Think about that part. When you all going to make a motherf—— series about the success that black folks is having. The only success we have is ‘Roots’ and ‘12 Years A Slave?’“
His gripe has become an increasingly common one. Besides “12 Years a Slave,” which took home the best picture Academy Award in 2014, in the past four years there have been Quentin Tarantino’s fictional slavery-themed, revenge western “Django Unchained” and a new TV series about escaped slaves called “Underground.” This year, there will be not one, but two epics about the infamous “peculiar institution” – the Matthew McConaughey film “Free State of Jones,” which is based on Newton Knight’s armed insurrection against the Confederacy; and the Sundance Film Festival hit “The Birth of a Nation,” which reportedly recreates Nat Turner’s historic 1831 slave rebellion in vivid detail.
For black audiences especially, who have long lamented the fact that they are woefully underrepresented on the screen, these kinds of films can induce polarizing opinions – on the one hand, this is an important part of their history and cultural heritage, but on the other hand it can be viewed as relentlessly downbeat and capable of reinforcing an image of African-Americans as victims, instead of agents of their own destiny.
“I value and agree with part of what Snoop Dogg is saying,” Vassar College film professor Mia Mask told MSNBC on Tuesday. “I too want to see movies where the wonderful, triumphant aspects of our experience are reflected. I’d like to see films about the black inventors and innovators who were the backbone of the industrial revolution. But it doesn’t have to be either/or. I am not only willing to look at movies and television shows in which African-Americans are depicted without strife or without struggle.”
Meanwhile, the new “Roots” might be a reprieve for audiences weary of the tropes of what could be called the slavery genre. For those familiar with the original, either from its first airing or from required viewings as an adolescent in school, some of the classic moments are still there: a newborn Kunta being lifted to the heavens, an obstinate older Kunta – now a slave – refusing to answer to his given name “Toby.” But they are now imbued with more ferocity and arguably have a more self-reflexive cultural weight as they are coinciding with the “Black Lives Matter” movement and a national conversation about how and when violence is inflicted on black bodies.
In the original “Roots,” perhaps in an attempt to woo white audiences to settle in for the long haul, producers crafted a “morally conflicted” slave ship captain (is there any other other kind?) played by legendary character actor Ed Asner, who completes his task with a heavy heart. In the 2016 version of “Roots” there is no benevolent white character to ease the pain, and the slave ship scenes are both harrowing and unsparing in their depiction of the violence and degradation that typified the slave trade.
“I think a great deal of attention and thoughtfulness was given to re-imaging these characters in such a way that they would be very palatable to today’s audiences,” Gil Robertson, president of the African-American Critics Association, told MSNBC on Tuesday. He believes the more assertive interpretation of the Kunta Kinte character is “an element of realism that was needed.”
“This is a young man that was coming of age, taken from his life and the family that he knew – I don’t think he would meet that with passivity,” said Robertson. “Audiences’ appetite today are more open to that type of expression.”
And while he is sympathetic with other members of the black community who want to see a broader spectrum of the black experienced captured in cinema, he has no problem with the spike in slave narratives, and he thinks African-Americans should embrace them, not boycott them.
“It’s critically important with all the things going on in black communities that we stop running from our past. It’s surprising the number of black people who know very little about their history,” he said. “The story of African-American slavery is a really a story of power, people who were able to step out of the lowest form of existence and reclaim their humanity.”
According to Mask, what has been lost on some audiences is that Hollywood has tried and failed in the past to generate interest in stories about slavery (think Oprah Winfrey’s “Beloved”) and it wasn’t in part until “12 Years a Slave” enjoyed crossover success, that a whole new world opened up. This coincided with a period of ’70s nostalgia (hence a return to “Roots’) coupled with a real life focus on police brutality and mass incarceration which not only parallels with certain aspects of slavery but could be viewed as a historic product of it.
“As much as these slave narratives seem to be set in the past they are really metaphors for today,” Mask said. “It’s to some extent the return of the oppressed seeking a voice, to be herd to be understood, to be validated.”
Naturally, it would be easier for many viewers to retreat to more cathartic, mindless entertainment, but Mask argues that even those films have their own ideological and political subtext. She also points out that for audiences who feel deprived of myriad African-American representations need look no further than the hit TV shows “Empire,” “Scandal” and “Blackish,” which present varied portraits of flawed, but affluent modern black people. In the meantime, there should still be room to engage with our history and debate how it should be interpreted.
“I do appreciate that there is attention being given to this history in popular culture,” she said. “We should care about how the past is being represented in the present.”