By Jeff Jensen
May 25, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Casey Crafford/History
  • TV Show

To TV viewers of a certain age, the term “event series” is defined by a phenomenon that gripped the country in 1977: Roots, a sprawling adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel. Like Star Wars, another game changer of that same year, Roots was an accidental groundbreaker. Fearing a bomb, ABC aired all eight episodes in eight straight days to minimize the damage to its season. What the network got instead was a success: The series was watched by an estimated 130 million people. Roots was must-see binge TV, and while not without flaws, it brought people of all races together to inspire reflection about our nation-building and our responsibility to the legacy of slavery.

Those considerations are still relevant nearly 40 years later, when #BlackLivesMatter is still a cause that needs championing, when Confederate flags still fly with pride, and when complex issues of race—from white privilege to institutional bias—still roil American life. It’s a good time, then, for a new Roots. This take on Haley’s book is like so many other “event series” today—a reboot of something many watched long ago. It also happens to be a powerful experience worthy of your time and conversation.

The original Roots was marred by choices now seen as pandering to white audiences, like a slave-ship captain with a tortured conscience. The remake is resolute in producing credible historical fiction and presenting it through a slave’s perspective. It is also disinterested in assuaging white discomfort. A 125-year multigenerational epic begins in 1750 with Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), stolen from Gambia and sold into slavery. He endures degradation and resists the erasure of his identity by actively remembering his heritage. He instills his warrior mindset into his daughter, Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose), who suffers at the hands of Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a rapacious slave owner desperate for social elevation. The violence they suffer is horrifying. Their strength is heroic but never phony nor dramatized without thought of cost.

The second half of the four-part series centers on Kizzy’s son by Tom, “Chicken” George (Regé-Jean Page), a cockfighting whiz with no use for family lore. He chases free-spiritedness within the slave society with queasy, dead-end strategies, like developing a flamboyant persona calculated to entertain, not threaten, white culture. The final act finds a disillusioned George and his pragmatic, alienated son (Sedale Threatt Jr.) drawn into the Civil War and challenges them to reconnect with the past as they forge a new future.

A propulsive, plot-driven narrative and performances remarkable for their emotional depth and physicality keep you constantly engaged. A strong imagination for the slave experience—their ambivalence about the Revolutionary War; their attitudes about love, family, religion—yields dramatic richness and cultivates great empathy. A score of supporting characters deepen the themes of freedom and identity and perseverance, with Forest Whitaker doing a poignant turn as Fiddler, Kunta’s plantation mentor and a portrait of survival by conformity. The choppy final hour indulges some violent wish-fulfillment, but also provokes us to consider how we respond to the racial challenges of today with a defiant and disciplined activist spirit. A difficult yet rewarding journey, Roots asks us to fearlessly confront our past and be changed by it. A–

2016 TV Mini-series
  • TV Show
  • 1
  • 05/30/16
  • In Season
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