This is your brain. This is your brain on ‘Roots.’
Modern reactions to a 40-year-old miniseries
Beginning Monday night, the History Channel airs its reimagining of the 1977 Roots miniseries. Based on the seminal Alex Haley novel, it’s essential, ambitious, and well-executed. There will almost certainly be Emmy nominations.
But it is unlikely that the four-night event will capture audiences the same way the original series did when it premiered in 1977, thanks to the advent of the DVR. When ABC first aired Roots, it was an epic, unprecedented piece of television, aired over eight consecutive nights. It was ubiquitous — more than half the people in the country watched at least part of it. It still stands as one of the most-watched television events.
Because our media consumption habits have evolved so much, a new version of Roots doesn’t just mean reviews from television critics and profiles about the main players. It equals think pieces and live-tweeting and recaps and discussions about What It All Means. For Those of Us Who Write About The Culture, this means rewatching the original Roots, watching new Roots, and sifting through a ton of companion reading. That’s a lot of content based on slavery to take in, with more to come — hello, Free State of Jones (in theaters June 24) and The Birth of a Nation (in theaters Oct. 7). There’s also the WGN hit Underground, which recently wrapped its first season as the most-watched series in the history of the network. Certainly, 12 Years a Slave broke ground in 2013 with the tale of Solomon Northup, and it demonstrated just how much was still left to examine onscreen about this part of America’s history. But there’s a remarkable strain of defiance and resistance that beats through the essences of the current Roots, Underground, and The Birth of a Nation that sets them apart.
Both versions of Roots are important cultural artifacts. Wanting The Undefeated’s coverage to do our readers justice, I pitched multiple pieces to coincide with the History Channel airing. Around the office, we wryly began referring to it as The Summer of Slavery. The further I got into this project, the more I was reminded of Gene Demby’s excellent 2015 piece for NPR’s Code Switch: How Black Reporters Report on Black Death. When the story is about people who look like you, who endure things your own family members endured, it’s just too close not to get to you. As Demby wrote, “we don’t stop being black people when we’re working as black reporters … we quite literally have skin in the game.”
The deeper I got into reading The American Slave Coast, a well-written book with language that should allow a reader to move along at an easy clip, the more I found myself putting it down for much-needed mental breaks because of the awful, alarming details. And then with regard to all the slave “content” I’ve been experiencing all I can say is, thank goodness for way, way, way in-advance screeners.
Skillful, effective storytelling means high production values, sublimely-paced plotting, detailed character development, honest acting and clear, realistic writing and dialogue. These components serve to make most any story compelling and engaging. But when the story is about slavery — and in this case, American slavery — everything is that much more horrific and stomach-churning.
I’ve experienced similar cringing, watch-through-your-fingers moments with Room and Outlander. In Room, a woman (Brie Larson) is kidnapped, held captive in a filthy shed, repeatedly raped, and bears her rapist’s child (Jacob Tremblay) who eventually becomes their key to escape. Outlander depicts in disturbing, unflinching detail, an 18th century Scottish man, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), being strung up by English soldiers and whipped until every inch of his back runs with blood. An English captain, known as Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), has a sadistic, sociopathic obsession with Fraser, and the show spends what feels like forever depicting Randall’s horrifying torture and rape of Fraser, sparing no detail.
For me, Room and certain episodes of Outlander go in a virtual box of Valuable Things That Are Very Well Done But Never To Be Watched Again. But when watching culture work like both versions of Roots or 12 Years, there’s an added layer of trauma knowing you’re witnessing horrors that happened in real life, over and over, to your very own ancestors, and that usually what took place was in fact, far worse. Critical distance be damned — when I finally brought myself to see 12 Years with a colleague, I stayed up the rest of the night with the lights on. I called an aunt who also doubles as the family historian. I listened as my Aunt Cornelia told me about how my (black) great-grandfather used to truss up his own son naked in a barn and whip him over some offense that certainly didn’t brook such treatment. The McDonalds might have been free on paper, but the vestiges of slavery remained difficult to shake.
The stories I heard through my childhood — about how Aunt Cornelia always missed the first three weeks of school because my father’s family grew up sharecropping in rural North Carolina and they had to get the crops in, or how my grandmother would leave the house with bags on her feet to provide for her 10 children when she couldn’t afford shoes — suddenly came rushing into my brain, live and in color. “What 12 Years was for you, The Color Purple was for me,” Aunt Cornelia told me that night.
Recently, I found myself headed south from Washington on Amtrak’s Carolinian train. The route snakes through parts of rural Virginia, and as it lumbered along, I gazed out the window and was greeted by scenes of rebel flags waving defiantly from poles in yards filled with rusting piles of junk. The woods we passed didn’t look much different from the ones I’d seen in new Roots, which is partially set in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. A wave of nausea and dread washed over me. The familiarity was eerie.
And so, the further I progressed into this project, the more I dragged my feet knowing what lay ahead. I recruited my good friend Talia Buford, who covers environmental justice for the Center for Public Integrity, to join me, half-jokingly, in being re-traumatized.
We streamed the 1977 adaptation over a brunch of chicken and waffles — ordered via app — and mimosas in Talia’s living room on a Saturday morning while we folded laundry. We made it through three episodes before our schedules demanded we call it quits, and we were both relieved to have excuses to do something else. I had to watch the last three on my own and I’m sure Talia was thankful I didn’t loop her back in.
What follows is a stream-of-consciousness account of my friend and me revisiting the miniseries for the first time since middle school. As such, it’s patchy, expletive-flecked, and of course, aided by real-time searches of The Googles. Feel free to queue up Roots (it’s available to stream on Amazon) and follow along, Dark Side of the Rainbow-style, or simply use this as a refresher. If you’re planning to watch the History Channel’s modern iteration, and you have vague memories of the original series, it’s worth revisiting. What comes into stark relief, almost immediately, is how much more sophisticated our knowledge of American slavery has become in the nearly four decades since Roots first aired. It makes it easy to understand the value of the History Channel’s new attempt. Here is Talia and I’s conversation.
First aired Jan. 23, 1977
Key points: Kunta is born in the village of Juffore, Gambia, to his parents, Binta and Omore. He’s kidnapped by slavers during a coming-of-age trip into the forest. So is one of the elders charged with leading and protecting the boys, and Kunta’s adolescent crush, Fanta.
I wonder if I can ask [The Undefeated editor-in-chief] Kevin [Merida] for hazard pay for all this slavery work.
Oh, right. OJ was in this! Back when people liked him.
Wait, the FCC was OK with barechested women in prime time in 1977? Were we better with context and nuance and not sexualizing breasts then? Why don’t we remember any of this? Ooooh, ’cause we watched it at school. And only the slavery bits. That’s all anyone remembers: Levar Burton getting whupped.
Talia: They were Muslim?
Me: Well, yeah, Islam is super old.
Kunta Kinte’s dad has a great barber, apparently.
“Slaves. We’ll be taking on slaves.” Cue ominous music and the white dude in the bad wig looking dubious.
Talia: Squatting like that is HARD! People in developing countries have mad flexibility in their hips.
Me: LOL whut
Levar Burton looks super concerned about the fate of penis/foto (no really, that’s how they spell it in the book)?
Talia: Levar Burton always had an old face.
How is the fur not bloody? He tanned and cured that coat quick! Apparently Kunta doesn’t have much common sense?
These dudes debating the merits of thumbscrews and their use on “n—– bitches” are really discussing the “Christian thing to do.” Um. Guys. Do you hear yourselves?
So much foreshadowing at hotep university. Wait, can you be a hotep if you’re African? But Roots was written by an American. Was Alex Haley a hotep?
So much exposition in the cargo hold.
This hardly seems like a fair fight.
I wonder what Africans thought of this series.
Kunta Kinte = warthog.
Does “Mr. Slaver” have a real name?
The entire series, in today’s dollars, cost $25 million ($6 million in 1977).
Talia: OJ Simpson is not a bad actor! He’s really articulate!
He was white people’s favorite black guy!
Oh, no. S— just got real. Mr. Slaver is marching folks through the brush while Kunta’s trying to catch a pheasant.
Talia and me, together: LET THE BIRD GO KUNTA!
How does Kunta know they’re “white”? As opposed to scary violent interlopers with light skin? Has he ever seen a gun before?
“White people smell like wet chickens???” This is just shade.
Well, this is messed up. Just cause you’re a man doesn’t mean you can’t respect your mama. Also, you get kicked out at 15?
Oh, Maya put his a– in line.
Oh, no. Nonononono. Welp, we knew this was coming.
This feels like it moves slow. And so much to dread. And we’ve got another five episodes.
There’s an attempted uprising on the ship, which is quelled, and Kunta arrives at Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1767. After he’s taken to the Reynolds plantation, he tries to run away in the middle of winter, and he’s strung up, whipped, and forced to accept his Anglo name, Toby.
Why not have native tongue and subtitles? Too much?
OMG THIS WIG IS SO BAD.
Slater’s (“Mr. Slaver” is actually Mr. Slater) like you gotta let the crew rape the slaves ’cause it’s a slave ship! And they need their off time.
Meanwhile, the captain (Ed Asner) is still behaving like he’s got some moral upper ground. Which … COME ON dude.
Sooo, all of a sudden, we switched away from English?
Kind of dreading what all of this is going to be like rendered with higher production values. It’s easy to forget/dismiss when so much (like the wounds) looks fake.
How is no one ashy? Even if they brought this girl above deck and doused her in sea water, her skin wouldn’t be gleaming like she took a bath in cocoa butter. These people all look way too healthy. Leave it to black people to be the Ash Police.
This is not a series that was created for binge-watching, which makes sense. We are far off from the era of binge-watching. But the plot moves like molasses.
You know, after this, I think I too would have welcomed the calm and cheer of “Reading Rainbow.”
This is a common, maddening thread through on-screen stories about slavery: Rape of black women is always framed as something that happens to emasculate black men and as character motivation, and almost never as a terrible thing that PRIMARILY AFFECTS BLACK WOMEN.
So are the thumbscrews a Chekhov’s gun? Does anyone ever actually make use of them?
Fiddler’s wig is the woooooorst.
So, you’re just not gonna put a new shoe on the horse?
Fiddler: “Things will get better when you stop being African and start being n—– like the rest of us.”
Talia: “You called me a dummy, Dummy!”
Nobody learns English in four months.
Dude is running away with these loud chains and no plan. Where is he going? Nothing about this is smart.
AND it’s winter? It’s cold enough to snow? None of this makes sense.
Oh great, here comes the part I had nightmares about: “What’s your name [crack]?!”
It’s somewhat less traumatizing this time. The blood is so obviously fake.
It’s FREEZING outside. Why are none of these people shivering?
Kunta tries to run away again and gets captured again. His punishment is getting half his foot cut off, and Belle nurses him back to health. They fall in love, and Kizzy is born.
Spotsylvania County, Virginia, September 1776
We’ve entered John Amos-as-Kunta territory.
How do you not feel a giant person hopping onto your wagon?!?!?
OK so Kunta finds Fanta and this … escalates quickly. But they were never together?
Kunta just messing up life for everybody.
Does Kunta know where he is? How is he getting a boat to go home? Maggie trying to survive.
Really not looking forward to Kunta’s foot getting amputated.
Between the dirt in his whip wounds and getting his foot cut off with a dirty axe, how does this guy never get anything infected?
Oh. Foot’s infected.
Kunta asks what kind of man cuts off another man’s foot. But you were stolen, thrown into the hold of a ship for weeks to lie in your own piss and s—, branded, sold, whipped and left in the dirt where your wounds could get infected, and you’re asking about how they couldn’t treat you like a man?
Talia: You were never a man to them, Kunta.
Roots seems like it was for black actors in the ’70s what Harry Potter was for British actors. Everyone and their mother was in this: Levar Burton, the aforementioned OJ Simpson, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, John Amos, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Louis Gossett Jr., Olivia Cole, Richard Roundtree. But apparently, producers had trouble convincing actors to join the project. In a story on Roots published in Watching While Black: Centering the Television of Black Audiences, Eric Pierson wrote that Redd Foxx didn’t want to play an old slave because he thought it was demeaning. Richard Roundtree, who played Sam Bennett, had to be convinced to do the scene where he has to beg his master for forgiveness in front of Kizzy.
Talia: I keep seeing James every time John Amos is on the screen.
How’d we get Belle’s hair so straight? When were hot combs invented?
Talia: Patent awarded in 1920, according to Wikipedia. And Madame C.J. Walker is like a hundred years after Roots takes place.
OK, this nameless (Genova?) woman who keeps throwing herself at Kunta with NO character development is so problematic.
LOLOLOL at the sock Belle made for Kunta’s half foot. We are terrible people.
Kizzy, now 16, wants to get married to Noah, who attempts to run away with a traveling pass Kizzy has forged. As punishment, she’s sold to Tom Moore. Moore rapes Kizzy repeatedly, resulting in the births of multiple children, whom he sells, and Chicken George, whom he keeps. George learns to raise and fight cocks.
Why did we skip through Kizzy’s entire childhood?
Why is master wearing velvet and satin in what looks to be the middle of the summer? How is sweat not pouring off his face?
Oh, dear. Missy Ann is Kizzy’s bff. That’s can’t be good.
How is Kizzy so naïve? Like, how were her parents able to preserve such a sense of innocence when everything around her is dangerous?
OK, this is so weird.
She (Missy Ann) really said this: You’re not. My little. N—— baby doll. Anymore.
Both me and Talia, to Missy: Lookahere, b—-.
KIZZY STOP TALKING ABOUT AFRICA
The thought of kissing your fourth cousin makes you swoon?
Noah hears that Kunta’s foot was cut off because he tried to run away, and he still thinks he can do better. Oh, to be young.
Noah’s an idiot. I mean, I get it dude, but this does not bode well for you.
KIZZY JUST LIE AND SAY YOU DON’T REMEMBER. Also, what who just storms into his niece’s room when she’s in her under things? WTF????
None of this can go well for Noah. Nope.
Dear lord can I please strangle Missy Ann?
Why doesn’t Noah get whipped publicly the way Kunta did?
Kunta, Belle, and Kizzy have a tablecloth, curtains, and pictures on the wall?
Everything is awful.
Ann was raised side by side with Kizzy and still can’t see her humanity.
Oh God, no. Anyone but this rapey a–h—.
Weird that Kizzy plans/expects her male child to exact revenge for her assault. Why?
Are we sure Ben Vereen isn’t Usher’s dad?
So is George is Tom Moore’s? Yes. He is.
Sam doesn’t recognize or respect the curve. OMG Sam go away.
Sam = earliest iteration of the Commodity Negro. Because no amount of chains will stop male arrogance and entitlement. She’s not into you! Move on!
Damm it, Kizzy.
OK it is nice to see her happy, but UGH.
And here comes George slut-shaming his mother.
The series doesn’t dwell on Kizzy’s trauma from repeated rapes. The next scene after Moore comes back to her cabin is Kizzy on a carriage with Sam, smiling. Like she just got over it. Interesting to see 1977 network versus 2016 cable treatment of this.
Oh, great. Sam’s master is also an a–h—.
So is Kizzy protecting Sam from knowing Moore raped her again? Oh, he knew and didn’t say anything.
How is George *that* oblivious?
George becomes a master cockfighter, but he’s no match for Tom Moore’s risk-taking. After George marries Matilda and she has several children. Tom is forced to turn George over to an Englishman to cover his gambling debts. Tom promises George manumission papers upon his return.
Nat Turner’s rebellion was in 1831, not ’41. And they hanged and killed black people indiscriminately, whether they were actually involved or not.
How is Chicken George this dumb?
Kizzy tells George who his is father is to stop him from killing him. I’m not sure that news would have stopped him. If anything, I think I’d want to hurt him more.
Moore speaks with impunity about fathering George.
This makes no sense. Slavery was abolished in England in 1833. Chicken George goes with the Englishman, TO ENGLAND, to pay Moore’s gambling debts no earlier than 1841. WTF?!?!
Is he free now? Technically?
Ann: “I don’t recollect knowing any darky by the name of Kizzy.” Oh, FFS this woman.
The thing about this aging makeup is that it makes all the old people look the same. Same wrinkles. Moore’s wife doesn’t look all that different from Ann Reynolds. And they don’t look that different from Kizzy, TBH. But all faces don’t age the same way, even on people the same age.
Alamance County, North Carolina, 1861 George returns
WHY DO THESE PEOPLE AGE SO FAST?!?
George gets his freedom by Moore giving him his manumission papers. Which is ludicrous. George was free the moment he set foot in England, or he should have been.
OK it is pretty cool that they made George’s son Kunta’s vocal twin, nearly.
The two poor whites are GEORGE and MARTHA. Like the Washingtons.
George’s adult son Louis lets everyone know the war is over and they’re free. Chicken George’s family stays and begins sharecropping, but when they’re sabotaged and terrorized by night riders and the sheriff offers no protection, they move to Tennessee to start their lives as free blacks.
How odd is it, living in the same buildings, plowing the same land, doing the same jobs, in the same clothes, one day slave and the next free? That has to have an effect on people.
Louis gonna get everybody killed.
Tom wants to trust the sheriff. The same sheriff whose homies are riding through burning up people’s crops and terrorizing them. Tom, you are screwed.
What is with the strain of naïveté running through this family?? Generation after generation.
Great. George decides to cash in on that white privilege.
OMG sheriff. This guy. Thanks a lot. Tom’s a dead man.
Oh, look it’s the invention of the Klan.
REMEMBER WHAT THEY TAUGHT YOU, GEORGE.
You can leave in the dead of night and never come back is what you can do.
OMG THIS WHITESPLAINING FROM MARTHA
Oh, I like this plan I hope they rob him blind.
Wait you’re gonna pull a gun on Brent!?! Oh, God. Nooooooo why didn’t they just leave?
You made them fumble by THROWING CHICKENS AT THEM!?! This is insane.
OMG ARE THEY GOING TO STRING UP BRENT AND WHIP HIM YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING.
I feel like we need more rope.
Matilda, now is not the time for your reminiscing can we leave please Tennessee awaits and you have three white men tied up to trees with the weakest-looking rope ever.
Oh, thank god IT’S OVER.