For costume designer Ruth Carter (“Selma,” “Malcolm X,” “Amistad”) and composer Alex Heffes (“11.22.63”), the re-imagining of “Roots” offered new opportunities to convey the ties that bind in the cross-generational saga of Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby).
It was daunting for Carter, whose team made 950 pieces that all had to be aged. Her approach was to add more historical fact, background and texture than the ground-breaking ’77 miniseries. “I wanted to give it an added dimension for a new audience,” she said.
“We knew from the beginning that because they harvested indigo in the Juffure village in Africa that they would have this rich blue, and when I saw that Diane Sellers, who did the South African portion, was using the blue, I decided to keep the blue going. So when we get to Annapolis and the Lord Ligonier slave ship lands, we did something called a ‘scramble.’ It’s not something you’ve seen in cinema before. It’s not just a slave auction but it’s a fact that when a ship came in with wounded, battered slaves, they were sold wholesale.
“So a plantation owner might come in, tie some sheets together and rope off four or five slaves that he wanted to buy. And we did that with Kunta Kinte. And because they arrived on the Lord Ligonier basically naked, I thought they’re just going to be handed leggings and shoes with no laces. And the slaves on the Waller plantation in 1750 had clothes made from yardage purchased in London or homespun there. They should have rudimentary clothing and there was a cabin designated as the place where fabric would be spun and clothing made.”
Without much documentation of what they looked like in 1750, Carter used costume research for the period to weave a narrative using wardrobe as a through line.
There were very rudimentary tops and pantalones for the men working in the field made out of rough fabric. But Carter’s research also indicated that later on the slaves were given fancier cloth from which several items would be made. “They were only given one outfit for the whole year,” Carter said. “I called it wash and wear because they were constantly working and constantly washing. And at Christmas in Virginia, when it got a little colder, the plantation owners would get their field slaves shoes. Children wore a toe shirt until they were 12.”
As they move out of 1750 and go into the smaller plantation with Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose) and Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), there were only a handful of slaves. “They’re now wearing hand-me-downs and they shared some of the pieces with the farmer’s wife,” Carter continued. “This is part of the costume sub-story. There’s a scene where Kizzy goes to the Easter party in a royal white dress and it becomes daughter-in-law Matilda’s [Erica Tazel] wedding dress, decorated with some beads.”
Another discovery was that slaves carved their own jewelry out of glass and broken china. It craftily becomes part of the 150-year lineage of this family. “And I tried to paint with color — blue became the family color, which you can trace back to the indigo of Juffure,” Carter said.
Chicken George (Regé-Jean Page) wears a frock coat and blue vest but comes back from London more tattered than when he left. And Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) wears a frock coat that’s aged so he would have a progression, as well as a banyan coat that’s like a robe worn by the gentry. “It worked really well for Fiddler because he was trying to be a winner in this world of slavery,” Carter noted.
A musical through line, meanwhile, was provided by composer Heffes, with different themes signifying each generation. “I tried to have the music go a little alien in the sense that he gets taken from his home and put somewhere that is completely alien to him,” said Heffes. “I took African sounds and jumbled them up.”
The main theme carries the score and comes back in different guises. It’s split into two halves, with a melodic section that’s primarily orchestral, and then an African vocal comes in and takes over, followed by African drums, reminding you where it’s rooted from. “It’s a strong vocal but sometimes it’s broken and appears desperate,” the composer added.
For the infamous Fort Pillow massacre in Tennessee, in which more than 300 African-American soldiers were killed fighting Confederates, Heffes used base drums and snare drums and flutes and wooden shakers to give a slightly odd mash-up of musical textures.
“I think the point of it is to redefine who these African-Americans were before they were slaves, when they were actually just regular people,” Heffes concluded.