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New 'Roots' set to arrive amid plethora of slave narratives

It arrives on the heels of "Django Unchained," "12 Years a Slave" and "The Birth of a Nation," which have made slavery dramas a veritable Hollywood subgenre.
Behind the scenes image of Lou Gossett Jr. and Levar Burton shooting ROOTS, Jan. 23, 1977. (Photo handout by ABC)
Behind the scenes image of Lou Gossett Jr. and Levar Burton shooting ROOTS, Jan. 23, 1977.

When the television miniseries "Roots," based on the best-selling novel by Alex Haley, debuted in 1977, it was more than just a colossal commercial success — it was a bonafide cultural phenomenon that coincided with a spike in black American Afrocentrism and introduced a generation of white Americans to the true horrors of slavery.

The new reboot of the story, which is being co-produced by original series star LeVar Burton, is set to debut on The History Channel, A&E and Lifetime simultaneously on Memorial Day. It arrives amid national debates on racial representation and diversity on film and television, as well as in the midst of longstanding battles over the way in which slavery is taught in schools and portrayed in film.

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The new miniseries also comes in the aftermath of "Django Unchained," "12 Years a Slave" and the upcoming Sundance Film Festival sensation "The Birth of a Nation," which for better or worse have made slavery dramas a veritable Hollywood subgenre. The first trailer for the re-imagining, which features recognizable faces like Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, and Laurence Fishburne, alongside newcomers like Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte, has the pristine look and historical detail of a big budget film production. But what can a new version of "Roots" offer nearly 40 years after it first pierced the nation's consciousness?

"It’s obvious at this point that Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype. Their love of the slave movie genre brings this issue out in the worst way," wrote Kara Brown in a recent column entitled "I'm So Damn Tired of Slave Movies" for Jezebel. "I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed 'important' and 'good' by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient."

Brown's sentiment is widely shared among many black filmgoers, some of whom once yearned for a more compelling cinematic take on the so-called peculiar institution now fear that Hollywood is getting bogged down in narratives that are preoccupied with black suffering. Still, Burton, who became an overnight star for his performance as Kunta Kinte in the original film, still thinks there is value in reinterpreting "Roots."

“My career began with 'Roots' and I am proud to be a part of this new adaptation,” Burton told Deadline when the project was first announced last spring. “There is a huge audience of contemporary young Americans who do not know the story of 'Roots' or its importance. I believe now is the right time to tell this story so that we can all be reminded of its impact on our culture and identity.”

When Burton references young people, he may be thinking of students who are consistently being subjected to whitewashed portrayals of slavery thanks to seriously compromised textbooks.

Last fall, Roni Dean-Burren, a teacher and Texas mother, took the McGraw-Hill company to task for her teenage son's geography book, which characterized slaves as "workers" and the slave trade itself as a form of "immigration."

“This is erasure,” she told The Washington Post. “This is revisionist history — retelling the story however the winners would like it told.”

And just last month, Scholastic had to shelve a children's book called "A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” which featured fully dressed, content black servants gleefully preparing a celebration for the first president, who in reality was a lifelong slaveowner.

The book reportedly is preoccupied with slaves' efforts to make a cake for the founding father without sugar — instead of looking at the nature of his relationship with human beings who were treated as property.

“They were not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent,” Scholastic executive editor Andrea Davis Pinkney argued on the company's website in defense of the book.