Roots: a necessary portrayal of transatlantic slavery?

When Roots was first screened in 1977, it made history with more than 100 million people watching the final episode. Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 book of the same name, the series has been recently remade, airing on the BBC in early 2017 and still available on BBC iPlayer here. So, what is to be gained by retelling the story for a 21st-century audience?  Writing for History Extra, historian Katie Donington reviews a few key moments from the recent series and considers how each version of the Roots story has prompted necessary conversations about a subject that has often been overlooked…

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The representation of slavery on screen has always had the ability to create and perpetuate powerful historical memories, and it is entangled with the cultural politics of race in both America and Britain. The impact of Gone With the Wind (1939) can still be felt today in the plantation museums of the Old South, some of which uncritically celebrate the antebellum era. Reflecting the circumstances of their production, they tell us much about attitudes to history, memory and identity.

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In recent years, there has been a cluster of films taking American slavery as a central narrative: Django Unchained (2012); Twelve Years a Slave (2013); and Birth of a Nation (2016). Elsewhere, British slavery has received less attention with the focus tending to be on the process of abolition; both Amazing Grace (2007) and Belle (2013) depicted the parliamentary and legal challenges to slavery rather than plantation society in the Caribbean. Televisual offerings have included The Book of Negroes (2015), Underground (2016) and to a lesser degree the BBC series Taboo (2016), while outside of the realm of drama there have been a number of documentaries not least of which was BBC Two’s BAFTA award-winning series Britain’s Forgotten Slave-owners (2015).

One of the latest productions to tackle this period of history is a 2016 remake of Roots. Based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), the original television series aired in 1977. The plot centres on African-born Kunta Kinte and his family’s trans-generational struggle to survive the system of slavery. When Roots was first screened, it made history with over 100 million people watching the final episode. Many people hold the series dear because it created a mainstream space in which to have a conversation about race and the making of America.

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The 2016 remake was filmed on location in South Africa and Louisiana. (BBC/A+E)

A necessary remake?

The continued relevance of Roots is obvious – we are now in an era in which the Black Lives Matter movement coexists with the rhetoric of ‘America First.’ America’s tortured history of race relations continues to be shaped by the unfinished business of slavery’s legacies. Despite an increased knowledge and awareness of slavery, there persists widespread misinformation, half-truths and myths, some of which have their origin in pro-slavery propaganda. The remake of Roots, much like its predecessor, is a determined challenge to any misty-eyed nostalgia for the ‘Lost Cause’ [the belief in a heroic Confederate cause in the American Civil War].

Undoubtedly the 1977 version has grown dated; its production values and cinematography can’t compete with the sumptuously realised 2016 remake filmed on location in South Africa and Louisiana. An increase in historical scholarship is evident in the attention to detail: historical advisors on the programme included Professors Daina Ramey Berry, University of Texas; Stephanie Smallwood, Duke University; and John Thornton, Boston University – experts in 19th-century slave culture, the Middle Passage, and Africa and the Atlantic world respectively. Specialist advice on the language and culture of the Mandinka was given by Dr Lucy Durán and Kadialy Kouyate at SOAS University of London [School of Oriental and African Studies].

A history that binds continents

The story begins in Juffure in the Gambia in 1767, a periodization that puts British slave trading centre stage given that the Thirteen Colonies had not yet gained their independence. The opening episode in some ways resituates Roots, suggesting that this is both an American and a transatlantic story. Through a series of key signifiers, including the British flag on the slave ship and the audibly English, Irish and Scottish accents of cast members in the pre-Revolutionary period, the first episode expresses the idea that slavery is the history that binds Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The presentation of Mandinka society as complex and hierarchical, references to the university at Timbuktu and the practice of Islam challenge continued assumptions about the ‘primitive’ nature of Africa prior to European colonisation. Much like Solomon Northup in Twelve Years a Slave, the education, refinement and culture of Kunta Kinte invite the audience to feel more acutely the injustice and humiliation of his enslavement. The acknowledgement of the existence of forms of slavery in West Africa is both accurate and should appease critics who claim this part of the history is ignored to suit a ‘liberal’ narrative.

The degradation of the slave ship is graphically reanimated – gone are the fine architectural lines and neat uniform bodies of the abolitionist rendering of the slave ship Brookes. Instead the audience witnesses the confluence of bodily waste, the casual violence (including a particularly disturbing scene depicting forced feeding using a speculum oris – a scissor-shaped instrument that was used to force the jaws open) and intimate proximity of a tightly packed cargo hold. The myriad languages spoken during this scene create a sense of chaos and bewilderment, as well as gesturing towards the difficulty of organised resistance. The different voices also remind the viewer of the uniqueness and individuality of each human being transported across the Atlantic. In terms of the female experience of enslavement the issue of sexual exploitation is evident from the outset.

Programme Name: Roots - TX: 08/02/2017 - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Kunta Kinte (MALACHI KIRBY) - (C) A+E - Photographer: Unknown

Kunta Kinte is a central figure in Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family’. (BBC/A+E)

Plantation life

In a reversal of the pattern of most plantation tours where evidence of enslaved life is often absent, hidden or optional, the viewer is introduced to the plantation complex via the fields and the slave quarters. The audience watches along with Kunta Kinte as the reality of his situation unfolds. Within minutes of arriving he witnesses hard labour, a brutal beating, and the separation of a family. The beauty and charm of the great plantation house (properties which are still favoured as luxury wedding venues by some) is captured well with manicured gardens, rising white columns and silk-clad belles all on display. The violence and exploitation that underpinned the leisurely elegance of the South simmers underneath, never fully masked by the romantic scenery, gentlemanly manners and polite hospitality.

The representation of slave-holding society is not as fully developed as that of the enslaved culture that supported it. There are some very interesting moments that raise important points about white society during the period. Many poor English, Irish and Scottish immigrants were attracted to the colonies as a means of escaping their lower status at home – on the plantations they could be found in the roles of overseer, book-keeper or manager. The white unity necessary to maintain order on the plantation offered an opportunity to transcend one’s class position. There are moments when the bonds of whiteness are broken, in particular the confrontation at the picnic between Tom Lea and his social superior William Byrd. The fight scene between enslaved musician Fiddler and Irish overseer Connelly also plays with the intersection of race and class, as the latter can be heard shouting: “I am not a nigger! You think you’re the same as me?! I’m better than you!”

The figure of the paternal planter– a favoured proslavery trope – is manifested in the person of Dr William Waller. Dr Waller purchases Kunta Kinte from his brother following his maiming as punishment for running away. Like Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of William Ford in Twelve Years a Slave, the notion of the benevolent slave-holder is presented as a compromised one, not least by both men’s decision to sell their enslaved property following a threat to the order of the plantation. The psychological trauma of displacement and the break-up of the family is a different kind of pain and violence to the whip, though its effects were no less damaging and perhaps more permanent. In this version of Roots Kizzy is sold to Tom Lea – a vicious rapist – and never sees her parents again.

Programme Name: Roots - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Matilda (ERICA TAZEL) - (C) A+E - Photographer: Unknown

In terms of the female experience of enslavement the issue of sexual exploitation is evident from the outset, says Donington. (BBC/A+E)

Gender, race and class

The plantation mistresses – both Elizabeth Waller and Patricia Lea – offer an interesting window into the dynamics of gender, race and class. The power that Elizabeth holds over Kunta Kinte, or ‘Toby’ as she names him (for her horse), is in direct contrast to the patriarchal Mandinka society represented in earlier scenes. The gender politics of horsemanship, so central to Mandinka masculinity and a symbol of freedom, inspires a moment of resistance when Kunta Kinte refuses to take Elizabeth’s horse to the stables – his contact with the animal sparking memories of his former life.

Elsewhere in the series, white women’s culpability and complicity in the system of oppression is not shied away from, when Kizzy is raped by Tom Lea his wife Patricia stands silently outside listening. This scene speaks to the complicated sexual and gender politics of the plantation. As a white woman Patricia holds power over the enslaved population but the limits of her power are clear when she tries to contradict her husband over his plans for ‘Chicken’ George (the child born of Kizzy’s rape). He silences and humiliates her by shouting: “What the hell you know about children, since you can’t have none?”

Programme Name: Roots - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: (L) Chicken George (REGE-JEAN PAGE) - (C) A+E - Photographer: Unknown

‘Chicken’ George, played by Rege-Jean Page. (BBC/A+E)

A brave decision

Remaking Roots is a brave decision, given the status of its predecessor. This version certainly succeeds in terms of its attention to historical detail, fine acting and high production values. It does leave one wondering about the other untold stories of enslavement and emancipation. There are many more slave narratives from both America and the Caribbean that provide incredibly rich human stories of survival. In particular, it would be good to have the history from a female perspective – Mary Prince or Harriet Jacob, for example. There are also some exceptional female-centred pieces of literature that could be adapted – Marlon James’s Book of the Night Women or Andrea Levy’s The Long Song.

The representation of slavery has been neglected for too long. Culture has the ability to initiate necessary conversations about the past and it is heartening to see so many powerful and sensitive productions speaking to that historical silence.

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Dr Katie Donington is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham and is currently researching 18th and 19th-century antislavery strategies as part of the Antislavery Usable Past project