[Spoiler alert: This review contains plot details from all four episodes of A&E’s “Roots,” not just Sunday’s premiere.]
It’s impossible to oversell the impact that the original ABC miniseries “Roots” had on television, and America, when it was originally broadcast in January 1977. It grew over its eight consecutive nights into a nationwide phenomenon, telling the stirring and enlightening saga of the slave Kunta Kinte and his African-American descendants.
By the time the epic miniseries based on the landmark 1976 Alex Haley historical novel had concluded, 130 million people had watched. That was not a preordained result. Then-ABC programming honcho Fred Silverman had so little confidence in the project that he decided to schedule it over successive evenings, rather than weekly, believing it better to get it over with quickly since the show was going to flop anyway. Instead, “Roots” became the small screen’s first multi-part scripted event, attracting a staggering two-thirds of all viewing households.
Nearly 40 years later, the television universe scarcely resembles the one into which that first “Roots” landed. And the ambitious four-night, eight-hour, $50 million re-imagining of the tale that premieres Memorial Day night at 9 p.m. as a simulcast on the History, A&E and Lifetime networks is much different too.
In the anything-goes ethos that now defines broadcast entertainment, this “Roots” is significantly bloodier, more brutal and more relentlessly harrowing than was its elegant, powerful predecessor. Particularly during the first pair of what are a quartet of interwoven two-hour stories, the viciousness, gore and perpetual sense of foreboding render the four nights quite the intense, gut-wrenching slog. Whereas the original was by necessity and design somewhat more visually restrained, this edition packs all the subtlety of a sledgehammer encased in razor wire.
This is not, however, to imply that the new “Roots” isn’t an enormously gripping viewing experience in its own right. It’s that and more. It’s simply not nearly the same kettle of fish. Too, that it arrives at this distinct moment in America – of Black Lives Matter, of the nation’s first African-American President, and of profound racial division — lends the project an added poignance that illuminates its sheer power. It’s also spectacularly shot and, with but an exception or two, exceptionally well-acted.
Like its predecessor, “Roots” follows the narrative of Kunta Kinte (played with white-hot passion by Malachi Kirby), a fiercely proud Mandinka warrior who is captured in Gambia and sold into slavery. The first night, directed by Phillip Noyce, is energetic in showcasing Gambian warrior-training life and unrelenting in its depiction of the horrors of the African Middle Passage slave ships bound for America as well as the lingering shame of such gross inhumanity. Forrest Whitaker is his usual exceptional self in his portrayal of a slave fiddler whose musical talent buys him a (slightly) better captive life – until it doesn’t.
The second installment, from Mario Van Peebles, focuses on Kunta’s unyielding adjustment to slave life in Virginia as “Toby” and his eventual adjustment to marrying and fathering a daughter named Kizzy (exceptional work from E’Myri Lee Crutchfield) until everything, as usual, descends into oblivion.
It is in the third segment, directed by Thomas Carter, that “Roots” hits a few rough patches. That’s particularly true in its delineation of the relationship between slave/plantation boss Tom Lea (an exceptionally creepy performance from Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Chicken George (theatrical brilliance from Rege-Jean Page), the son of Kizzy (played as an adult with coiled rage by Tony winner Anika Noni Rose). There is one scene in particular that is so unnecessarily graphic that it crosses the line into gratuitousness.
The final chapter details the African American participation in the Civil War, and the sure hand of director Bruce Beresford elevates it with a memorable flair – along with Laurence Fishburne (portraying Alex Haley) and Anna Paquin as slave owner fiancée Nancy Holt.
While it may seem that American audiences have been inundated by slave stories of late between “12 Years a Slave” (2013) and “Amistad” (1997), in fact it’s really not such an overabundance at all. And when you consider that “Roots” stirred the populace well over a generation ago, this reboot is not only enormously timely but some might say long overdue. It ultimately goes to great lengths to showcase the depth of the unspeakable atrocity that was institutionalized servitude and the ongoing heartbreak that is racism.
“Roots” is at once a more intimate and explicit document than was its forerunner and no less compelling, if you can endure the harshness of the spectacle that accompanies it. It is at once difficult to watch and impossible to ignore. And like the first edition, it educates and enthralls in equal measure, grabbing hold of our eyes and heart and never letting go.