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Forget What You Learned in Class — “Roots” Debunks Idea that African History Began with Slavery

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The large room in the basement of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights was radiating with living history and prominent talent, including the president of Morehouse College, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., civil rights legend and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, “Roots” and “Ride Along” movie franchise producer Will Packer and “Roots” actor and award-winning rapper T.I. As this month’s advance screening of the highly anticipated remake of the 1977 TV mini series “Roots” (billed as a “re-imaging”) began, there was an air in the space unlike any other I had experienced before. As I watched the film, I understood why.

The first episode airs Memorial Day night at 9 p.m. on the History Channel, A&E and Lifetime networks. Additional episodes air Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 9 p.m. The miniseries should not be missed. For all people, this film is tailored to tell a story that a large population of television viewers are likely unaware of. Most of our parents were either teenagers, young children or not even thought of yet when the original “Roots” aired on ABC, and today’s teen audience is particularly unaware of the miniseries and Kunta Kinte’s pivotal character in particular.

The series has only been rebroadcast three times (twice on BET) in the last 20 years. The four-decade-old story, based on Alex Haley’s multi-generational novel of the same name, follows Kunta Kinte from birth, through his enslavement, and the lives of his descendants.

While moving, “Roots”  is also very raw, graphic and provocative. What is particularly unique about this piece is that, unlike the original presentation, this version spends a great deal of time exploring the part of Kunta Kinte’s story in Africa before his capture. It delves into the intricacies of Kunta Kinte’s culture and inter-tribal relations, and his coming-to-age. The show also provides unique details on his people’s definition of manhood and morals, portraying the tensions that lead to Kunta’s capture, as well as the importance of family.

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With his entire backstory being filmed in Africa, it is a very genuine portrayal of Kunta Kinte’s early life. A particularly moving sequence is the depiction of a slave rebellion on board the slave ship coming to America. Although generally glossed over by history, “Roots” spends a sizable amount of time dedicated to depicting Africans of different languages, religions, tribes and geographic locations coming together while imprisoned on the boat and planning a revolt.

This is unique compared to most recollections and teachings of slavery because most stories of the enslavement of African people fail to mention their rich culture and diverse societies that existed completely independent of European enslavement or infiltration. Essentially, this new version of “Roots” does an excellent job of debunking the idea that African history began with slavery.

Now, the question certainly comes down to whether “Roots” is worth the trouble of packing into your living room with many of your bloated relatives after your Memorial Day cookout, with you, most likely, taking the uncomfortable front row seat on the carpet. The answer is yes. You probably don’t know Kunta Kinte’s story, purely, because it was told almost 40 years ago, but it is one that needs to be heard nevertheless. It’s an eye opening miniseries that is truly bound to raise questions, discussions and a new wave of enlightenment with a whole new generation.

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