The upcoming History channel program “Roots” is a re-telling of the classic TV mini series that took the world by storm in 1977 and is based on the 1976 bestselling book “Roots” by Alex Haley. The story follows Kunta Kinte, a beloved son and warrior of Gambia’s Mandinka tribe who is sold into slavery by an enemy tribe.
At an advance screening of the first episode of the new eight-hour mini series set to air Memorial Day, Monday, May 30 at 9 p.m. on the History Channel, I had many mixed emotions watching Kunta Kinte’s life unfold. The movie’s opening shot is of light streaming through a thick steel grill. We see Kunta Kinte’s face through that grill, unsure, wary, and definitely fearing the worst. This was a great way to set the scene for such an impactful opening episode. In the spirit of the older “Roots,” there is no shying away from the difficult subject matter.
The scene suddenly rewinds to show traditional life in the Mandinka tribe, which isn’t something I’ve seen a lot in slavery movies. It adds a nice touch of realism. It not only sets the tone for the episode, but shows us Kunta Kinte’s personality and upbringing as well. He is independent, adventurous, resourceful and driven. This serves him well in his encounters with enemy tribes and foreigners as well as his own people in warrior training.
When the actual slavery story arc begins, we learn that Kunta Kinte is sold into it by an enemy tribe. There he endures the frightening trip from Africa to America where his people and others are shackled on top of one another.
But “Roots” goes deeper into the slave ship experience than our history classes have taught us. The villagers weren’t idle in their captivity. They rebelled. This gives me so many more sides to a story that most of my history classes have glazed over.
Often, we are told that the English invaded the villages and took who they wanted. While this is very true, it isn’t the only part of the equation. And I had not heard of a rebellion on the slave ships. It filled me with pride to see that.
This movie, while shocking and graphic in some places and absolutely heartbreaking in others, taught me about strength and perseverance. This is something I could have never imagined going through and surviving, and that’s exactly what Kunta Kinte is trying to do, despite his best efforts to escape. Given its historical accuracy, it is mind blowing to suddenly come to the realization that these people may well have been my ancestors. It makes me appreciate my history as a young black woman so much more.
Not only does Kunta Kinte hold steadfastly to freedom, he holds on just as tightly to the fact that he is no one’s slave. Repeat. He is no one’s slave. “We were not slaves, we were enslaved,” explained “Roots” executive producer Will Packer during a post-screening panel discussion held at the Center For Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. Packer is an African-American movie producer responsible for such favorites as the “Ride Along” franchise and the romantic comedy “Think Like A Man,” and I couldn’t agree with him more.
My one little problem with the first two-hour installment? It occasionally tries for humor (in the advance screening, the audience laughed numerous times). But for me, the situations, especially in the episode’s second half, were much too dark to be funny.
There was also a small yet significant element that lifted my heart despite the darkness of the film: Unity. Despite his captivity, Kunta Kinte is not alone. His people sing songs to lift their spirits and speak in code with those songs in a manner similar to the field hymns sung by slaves waiting for Harriet Tubman.
Please, for the love of whoever you worship, if you want to learn about your history or yourself, no matter your race or anything else, see this History Channel retelling of “Roots” when it debuts on Memorial Day. You will be far, far from disappointed.