New “Roots” TV miniseries is better-made, more accurate, never more relevant – The Denver Post

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When the original adaptation of Alex Haley’s “Roots” premiered as a TV miniseries in 1977, important civil rights victories had been won and the history of how Africans were captured, brought to America and enslaved seemed a difficult but necessary look backward.
The reimagined “Roots” miniseries premiering Monday seems a case of whiplash, looking both backward and forward in time, reminding us of the long-ago history of slavery while echoing current headlines and ongoing domestic rifts.
“Roots,” airing over four nights (two hours each night) across three networks premieres at 7 p.m. Monday on History, A&E and Lifetime. The story is as relevant as ever, cinematically more stunning and historically more accurate than the original. The casting is again superlative — Forest Whitaker as “Fiddler,” Jonathan Rhys Meyers as villain Tom Lea, James Purefoy, Anika Noni Rose and Laurence Fishburne are just the start.
Anyone who watched the earlier version can’t help compare the performances of Ben Vereen and Regé-Jean Page as showboating “Chicken George,” for instance (the newcomer compares favorably).
If all you remember from the original is the name Kunta Kinte, that’s enough: The importance of that name in the story, and how it reverberated in American culture, is key.
The story chronicles the ordeal the young Mandinka warrior endured in order to hold onto his tribal legacy, his identity, his name.
The first night’s telecast sees him torn from his home in West Africa in 1750, through the hideous passage, and on to endless whippings and degradation. The second night sees him trade American for British captors, as his legacy lives on in a daughter, Kizzy, who is sold to Tom Lea, a violent, poor white farmer (played by Meyers). Night Three finds Kizzy’s son George (born out of rape by Lea) grown to manhood and displaying expertise in cockfighting. The more subtle results of slavery are explored in this chapter, including an imbalanced friendship between a white slave-owner’s daughter and the slave’s daughter. The chapter includes a savage betrayal of George by his white father. The final night finds George returning from England a free man, to confront fractured family relations. It also explores the role of African-Americans in the Civil War, including the massacre at Fort Pillow, not included in the original miniseries, where Confederates took white soldiers captive and slaughtered hundreds of black soldiers.
A coda features Fishburne as author Alex Haley, a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte, who in 1976 published the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” The continued fantasy of seeing Kunta’s ancestors come to life threatens to feel stilted, but the device does make the point.
So much history — including media history. There are echoes of the first miniseries in the current production. The A+E Studios film was made with The Wolper Organization, the company that produced the original “Roots.” LeVar Burton, who played the young Kunta Kinte in that film, serves as executive producer on this work and has a cameo early in the piece, as a slave loaded onto a wagon. Contemporary icons of pop culture are involved, too, including Will Packer (“Straight Outta Compton”) as a producer and Questlove as music producer. The remake aims at a new, younger audience and succeeds in making it newly relevant for the Black Lives Matter era.
In pop culture and TV terms, the influence of “Roots” can’t be overestimated. The 12-hour original on ABC set ratings records, introduced historical fiction as popular entertainment, proved a consecutive-night miniseries could hold the nation rapt and showed that, despite the fears of  (white) network executives, a story featuring white villains and black heroes could become a landmark TV event. According to the Museum of Broadcasting, 100 million viewers, almost half the country, saw the final episode, which still claims one of the highest Nielsen ratings ever recorded, a 51.1 with a 71 share.
Those ratings records were set in a day when the country sat down together, literally, to share a TV experience. The “Roots” remake deserves the same attention, even if different people today regularly watch TV at prescribed times or on a particular screen.
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