Welcome to a review of “Roots” that doesn’t really reference the original miniseries. Everyone has gaps in their viewing histories, and the original 1977 production happens to be one of mine. I don’t deserve a medal or anything for this (it’s honestly a bit personally shameful), but when History announced its plans to recreate the epic story based on the book by Alex Haley, I didn’t go back to revisit what was, in 1977, a seismic cultural event. Instead, I thought it might be more interesting to embrace the new on its own terms, with as few outside influences to distract me from this multi-million-dollar epic.
That, quite likely, aided the viewing experience immeasurably. Sometimes, the simplest way to review a show is this: “Roots” got to me. There was no specific moment of revelation — instead, my fascination and empathy with Kunta Kinte and his descendants built and built with every tragedy and every moment of triumph. After spending about eight hours embedded with four generations of men and women, beaten down but not broken, bonded by blood and tradition, I feel genuinely affected. With so much storytelling out there, that’s no small feat.
The beauty of “Roots” is that it does have an epic scope, but simultaneously a narrow focus. The miniseries essentially tracks just one character at a time — the narrative baton passed from Kunta to his daughter Kizzy, to her son Chicken George, and then George’s son Tom, as they struggle to survive as prisoners of Southern slavery from the 1700s to the 1800s. By keeping its eyes on one character at a time, the storytelling gets to stay incredibly intimate. We see over a hundred years of human history pass by, but it’s what happens to this family that gets the spotlight. And that proves extraordinarily profound.
There are a few sequences that broaden out to capture key turning points like the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (with accompanying graphics that are honestly distracting, pulling what’s otherwise a very compelling scripted drama into Ken Burns territory). But otherwise, the focus on character not only keeps “Roots” grounded in its humanity, but spotlights some really tremendous acting. Malachi Kirby is magnetic in the pivotal role of Kunta Kinte, so full of rage as he attempts to bear the injustice of losing his freedom. Anika Noni Rose, as the older Kizzy, perhaps faces the biggest challenge, as we see her age from a young woman to a grandmother determined to keep telling her father’s story. Yet she owns the screen every step of the way. And Regé-Jean Page’s bravado as Chicken George is artfully tempered by the real pain clearly under the surface.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast is packed with familiar favorites like Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Goode, as well as Oscar winners like Forest Whitaker and Anna Paquin. It’s a bit distracting at first when they show up, but they never steal the focus away from “Roots'” stars.
The narrative balance isn’t perfect, especially in Part 1. While the sequences set in Juffure provide important set-up for Kunta’s journey later in life, and showcase the rich culture of 1800s West Africa, it’s all too clearly a prologue for the real story to come. Things pick up once Kunta and his fellow slaves find themselves trapped on a ship to America. And as soon as Chicken George strides onto the screen, “Roots” really gains momentum — Parts 3 and 4, which feature Page heavily, as well as America’s descent into civil war, prove to be gripping.
Because the current television landscape is so vast, it’s unlikely that the remake will be a cultural event on par with 1977’s broadcasts. But for those who haven’t seen the original — and that’s likely a large percentage of the current population, given that it’s currently only available on DVD — it’s exciting to experience drama on this scale, epic, intimate and earned.