Forest Whitaker (left) and Malachi Kirby star in the “Roots” remake airing on The History Channel. (Casey Crafford/THC)
Anika Noni Rose stars as Kizzy in the “Roots” remake airing on The History Channel. (The History Channel)
By Freddie Allen, NNPA News Wire National News Editor
Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose admitted that she questioned why Mark Wolper, the son of the producer of the groundbreaking 1977 mini-series Roots, would ever consider returning to that story.
The original miniseries, based on Alex Haley’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, won nine Emmy awards and was watched by more than 50 percent of the United States population. The miniseries inspired scores of families to trace their own genealogy, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
With the legacy and emotional burden of the original Roots, Rose said that she needed to understand the mindsets of the producers, their plan and what they were trying to accomplish with the remake.
When Wolper sat down to watch the 1977 miniseries with his own son, then 16 years old, he discovered that the pace and style of the original didn’t resonate with younger audiences. Wolper shared what his son told him with actors and producers. His son understood why the story was important, but similar to his father’s music, it didn’t speak to him.
After meeting with the producers, Rose came around.
“I think that this is a story that deserves to be told over and over again. As much as we hear about the Jewish Holocaust, we need to hear about our Holocaust. This particular American Holocaust. The second American Holocaust,” said Rose. “I hope that this is the beginning of the telling of the story of, you know, another America. Of the America that built America. I hope that we continue to tell this story from different angles.”
Rose continued: “We need to tell the story for new eyes, and a [younger generation] used to watching movies and television that move in a faster way and [speak with] a different language.”
Malachi Kirby, the English-born actor who stars as Kunta Kinte, said that the reboot was necessary to make the film more accessible. Producers for the 2016 miniseries relied on a host of historians and research that simply wasn’t available in the 1970s.
“[Roots] was the best that it could be at its time,” said Kirby. “We’ve updated this now, hoping that it will be the best that it can be at this time.”
“If there is something that’s keeping the younger generation from accessing that, then I believe we need to find a new way and I’m hoping that’s what we did with this [miniseries],” said Kirby.
Like Rose, Kirby expressed anxiety about appearing in the reboot at first.
“I felt extremely unprepared for this,” said Kirby. “I literally spent most of my time worrying about what I would do if I got the job instead of preparing for it. Then when I finally got it, I didn’t have a clue how to tackle this.”
Kirby turned to prayer to assist him in bringing his interpretation of Kunta Kinte to the screen.
“I came to an understanding that [Kunta Kinte’s] strength and his power would have come from the knowledge of himself and his spirit and so I decided I wanted to take time to get a bit deeper into myself, so I could play him and also strengthen myself in spirit,” said Kirby.
Kirby acknowledged that many people were left feeling very angry and very hurt after watching the Roots miniseries in the 1977.
Kirby hopes that the updated Roots sparks public dialogue about America’s history of racism and the legacy of slavery and that people gain some form of empowerment, healing and understanding in the process.
“There’s Birth of a Nation coming out, there’s Underground and [Roots]. There are so many projects coming out about this same narrative, I don’t think that it’s a coincidence,” said Kirby. “There’s a discussion that needs to be happen. I don’t think that people really understand this period of time. I hope that this project brings about more understanding and clarity.”
Rose said that she hopes more Black filmmakers like Nate Parker with Birth of a Nation, will get the opportunity to tell stories about this part of America’s history.
The cast also includes Laurence Fishburne as the narrator Alex Haley, Forest Whitaker, Mekhi Phifer, Erica Tazel and the rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris. Mario Van Peebles directed the second episode. Will Packer, the executive producer of Straight Outta Compton, also earned production credits on the Roots remake.
Rose said that she’s excited that young people of color and others will be inspired to learn more about their own roots after watching the miniseries.
Kirby said that through the experience of filming Roots and conversations with actors and staffers on set, he learned the importance of self-knowledge and knowing where you come from.
Kirby, knew that his parents were from Jamaica, but he didn’t know any of his family’s history past his grandparents.
Kirby recently took a DNA test and learned that his roots go back to West Africa.
“Now, I can say it with confidence: ‘That is where I’m from.’ I can go to that land and know that is where my people are from. I can pass that down to my children and that’s just the beginning,” said Kirby.
Kirby continued: “It has already empowered me so much, just rooted and grounded me so much, that little information, and I’m just going to continue on that journey.”