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On ROOTS Reimagined and Retelling This Classic Story

When I first heard that they wanted to remake ROOTS, I legit was like “Bhet why?” The mini-series from 1977, based on Alex Haley‘s book of the same name is one of those classics that everyone knows about even if they haven’t seen. Why touch it? Why do we need to see a new version of the harrowing tale of Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka warrior, stolen and sold into slavery? It was the role that catapulted LeVar Burton into stardom, and it is so strongly HIS that why would they even try to re-do it?

Fun fact: that was LeVar’s first ever audition. If you wanna talk about being where you are destined to be in, that’s an example.

Levar Burton TV 19

Those were my questions when the ROOTS team reached out to me. I was hella skeptical. And then they told me why they were re-imagining (not remaking) ROOTS. It turns out that most millennials (people under 35) have never seen the original ROOTS. We’ve seen clips of the “What’s your name? KUNTA.” scene, but many of us have never sat down to watch it. Me included.

So they sent me a screener of the first episode of ROOTS Reimagined. Y’all. Y’ALL. I watched it and when it ended, I felt trapped in a glass case of emotions. I felt anger that was visceral. I felt proud, from the resilience of my people. And I felt more than ever that this was necessary. This is a time when this conversation can be really productive.

I agreed to partner with the History Channel and A+E on this to spread the word because what they’ve done here is fantastic. They put my skepticism to bed after seeing that episode, and the care they took to tell a story that was layered, as complete as it could be, but also relevant to the pace we absorb things in now.

Episode one spends a lot of time in Africa, where we learn who Kunta Kinte was, who he came from and how he came to be who he was before he was stolen from his home to become a slave in the United States.

ROOTS 3

We see the power that has been infused in him, allowing him to bend but not break. That is what gave me the pride in the midst of the anger of seeing people being treated like cattle, branded and beaten. There were times I had to take my eyes away from the screen, because it was TOO real. There were times when tears fell from my eyes before I even realized they were there. It did not spare us from the ugliness of what happened to Kunta and other Black people but it also gave us the beauty they had before they were torn away to come to this land.

ROOTS stars Malachi Kirby, who is about to bust out the gates and be considered a strong part of Hollywood’s next generation. He is phenomenal as Kunta Kinte. He might be unknown, but that is changing right now. Last week, I was at the White House with the ROOTS crew, speaking on a panel where we talked about “Your Name is Your Shield: How People Today Are Finding Their Roots.” I’ve written About Yoruba Names and their Meanings and how our monikers are the dreams our parents have for us and the circumstances of our births. The conversation we had explored that and how these names define who we are (Kunta/Toby).

Deray, Dr. Alondra Nelson, Me. Picture credit: Paul Holston/The Hilltop Newspaper

Deray, Dr. Alondra Nelson, Me speaking at the White House on May 17, 2016. Picture credit: Paul Holston/The Hilltop Newspaper

Afterwards, they screened the first episode for everyone who was there. I was backstage with the cast, and when the closing credits rolled and lights came on, LeVar Burton, who serves as Executive Producer, was in tears. He was so proud to see this story, and the scene we are left in is THE defining moment for Kunta. He hugged Malachi and that had me in my feels. He passed the torch.

Anika Noni Rose (hey boo!) plays Kizzy, Forest Whitaker is Fiddler, Emayatzy Corinealdi is Belle and Laurence Fishburne is Alex Haley. Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Tom Lea.

So yeah. ROOTS kicks off next week on Memorial Day (May 30), with a 2-hour premiere episode at 8pm CT. It will then continue every evening at the same time (for 1 hour), wrapping on Thursday night. Get this: it will be playing on the History Channel, A+E and Lifetime at the same time, so this ain’t no game. Instead of the 12-hour ROOTS we had before, this is 6 hours.

Anywho, join me on the Twitters on Memorial Day at 8pm CT/9pm ET, as I watch and live-tweets ROOTS! Follow me @Luvvie. And afterwards, I’ll jump on Periscope to recap it and debrief so we can all woo-sah together. My Periscope is at: http://periscope.tv/Luvvie, so even if you don’t have an account, you can watch from your browser. The Twitter account for the mini-series is @ROOTSseries so you can follow them too.
Luvvie ROOTS livetweet

I am asking my white friends to also watch this mini-series, possibly with your kids too. The trans-atlantic slave trade is not just Black history. We didn’t do it to ourselves. This is also part of YOUR history, as well, as your ancestors were the ones who were on the other side. This conversation with your children will be uncomfortable, but it is one that they can handle. Black folks had to have these talks with our kids since they were young, so TRUST, yours can deal too. They need to know the truth in the legacy of slavery and the lingering effects. They need to know that this happened.

Our trauma isn’t an inconvenience but a tangible remnant of what happened across those oceans and on this soil. Protecting them from this is to sit in the privilege of being able to afford not knowing. Make this a family event. History Channel even created a family viewing guide to help give you some ideas on how to decompress afterwards, and answer some tough questions. Teachers, there’s classroom resources for you too.

Part of Kunta’s identity was how much his name mattered to him. You can show that Your Name is Your Shield through the app that History has.

I am KIZZY ROOTS

Let’s get uncomfortable. Let’s have the conversations that need to be had.

What I’ve seen so far? It’s good, y’all. I was so nervous at first but this was well done and they took it very seriously. In fact, the son of the original producer is the one who is producing this one. I spoke with members of their team and from the top down, they were like “we knew we couldn’t mess this up.” I know people are often like “why do we always have to tell slavery stories?” But think about it. How many in 35 years have there really been? The problem is the lack of OTHER stories, not in the telling of the ones of the legacy of slavery. I really hope folks tune in.

Oh and I got a picture with LeVar Burton at the White House. After my panel, he told me “you’re incredible.” So basically, I can steal away to Jesus now. Anywho, here’s our picture. BECAUSE LEVAR BURTON, SON!!!

Luvvie and LeVar Burton

And he happens to be one of the sweetest celebs I’ve ever met. His spirit is pure light. I even gave him my book and he took a picture with it, where he nailed the look of my side-eye lollipop. It was PEAK awesome!


Disclosure: Compensation was provided for this post by A+E Studios but as always, all opinions, thoughts, side-eye and whatnot are all mine. I keep it 100 always.

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35 Comments

  1. Tbaby
    May 26, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    I watched roots when I was really young! They televised it in Nigeria. It was really touching, constantly crying for him. After so many prayers of ‘just say Toby’. I became proud of what he stood for. I promptly read the book after they discontinued the series.

  2. Serenity
    May 26, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    I remember the original showing. My mother made my brother and me sit on the floor while she sat on the bed cursing white people for the ages. I’m not watching this remake. I saw the original several times (Queen too). And if there isn’t anything new to add to the story other than new faces…. I already know I’m Black. I don’t need help disliking white folks.

    • foxxxxxtalltrees
      June 2, 2016 at 10:26 pm

      @Serenity. You should really give it a chance. This story is being told thru different eyes and it’s amazing. You are really missing something great. This doesn’t take away from the original but it’s more Africa and goes deeper to tell the story.

  3. Sassy
    May 26, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    I still hate white people from 1977 when I saw this at age 10. We got to stay up late for the whole series. Went back to my predominately white elementary school ready to turn it all the way out. They made me read the book too, like my Mama’nem wanted me to KNOW for sure–it was rougher than the movie. they also traumatized me with Jane Pittman. When Cicely Tyson spit in that water and gave it to Sandy Duncan my soul rejoiced and I was made whole again. I’ll pass. Can’t do slave movies, no Queen, no 12 years, no Next Generation, nunna dat. I have to work with these people. I can’t come back to work damning these people and all their ancestors all the way to hell and ready to turn it all the way out again.

    • Sassy
      May 26, 2016 at 12:48 pm

      Excuse me, Kizzy spit in the water as I wandered in the room while my Mama’nem watched yet another Roots installment. I am so traumatized that I mixed up the movies. At any rate, the spit scene revived me.

  4. May 26, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    I’ve been looking forward to this remake and now you have me even more excited and nervous to watch the remake. I’ll be sure to have my box of tissues on hand.

  5. lalarochelle
    May 26, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    YAAASS! I’m all for exposing the younger generations to what is standard for many of us. As a history teacher and currently teaching the Civil Rights movement, I make sure I emphasis that victimization is not the message we should be taking, but it is the absolute power that we STILL possessed in a seemingly powerLESS situation. And I think that is why it’s important for those of us (28-35ish) should rewatch many of these seminal works from that angle, because when we first watched many of our parents wanted us to know our history but didn’t focus on the power we exhibited. *Setting DVR now

  6. lalarochelle
    May 26, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    BTW- have you caught Underground?????

    • Ms. Dawn
      May 26, 2016 at 2:54 pm

      Cause it is everthing!!!!!

    • SIPort
      May 26, 2016 at 4:47 pm

      Here to co-sign about Underground. It was brilliant, and I say upfront -it will disturb your soul. Then, again, it is supposed to.

  7. Paula
    May 26, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    I’m with Sassy on this one, I just can’t watch slave movies, no matter how hard I try, I just get too pissed, and my blood pressure goes through the roof! Especially since I sit next to a coworker that I KNOW don’t like black folks no matter how hard she tries to ACT like she does. It’s a small office, we’re in cubicles, I live in the redneck South…I might have to throw my stapler over my cubicle wall and knock her the hell out after reliving that series all over again. I can’t, I can’t….. once was enough for me.

  8. CourtneyH
    May 26, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    I am still on the fence. I saw the original, so while I understand why it needs to be aired again, I also don’t think that I am the intended audience.

    That’s the part that saddens me. We have generations of people, black and white, that will only learn about the slave trade through Roots. It isn’t deeply covered in US History curriculum. There is no real opportunity for discussion and dialogue regarding what happened and how the effects can be felt for generations. So in light of the utter absence of that, I am all for re-airing, re-imagining, whatever of this story. I myself plan to buy one of the versions to show to my child when she is older, and will have honest discussion with her about it too.

  9. May 26, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    That picture with Levar Burton is EVERYTHING! I hope you print that out and put it on your wall at home. You two legit look like family. Pure love right there. I’ve been waiting breathlessly for this airing since I first learned about it. I’m one of those people who like to watch the slave stories, who watches the documentaries about Jim Crow and Reconstruction and all of that hard history about being black in America. And while I know a lot of my sisters and brothers are uncomfortable with these stories and the showing of us in positions of less than… I think they are beyond necessary to be seen and understood. We’re not where we are because we chose this life. We’re not where we are because we can’t do better or because we’re flawed. We’re where we are because the system has been rigged against us, time and time and time again. And as one part of the system is dismantled, another barrier is erected that serves the same purpose. We are long overdue in understanding and studying the ways that we have been wronged so that we can progress forward.
    I can’t wait.

  10. Milaxx
    May 26, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    I was in 7th grade when Roots came out originally. One of my teachers even briefly discussed it in class. This was so groundbreaking that we had to get parental permission for that class.
    I am happy to hear this was well done and I hope this new generation watches and learns.

  11. May 26, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    I’m white with Black kids. My 17 yo is still at home. I had no intention of watching this because I am still traumatized from my first experience of Roots. I don’t remember watching it. I do remember the nun teaching me at the time rehashing ever episode–every violent detail–every day. I still shudder at the memories.

    I’ve never discussed slavery with my sons. We discuss civil rights a lot. And every time we do I cry because I am so fucking embarrassed to be a white person. And I don’t write that just so you think I’m cool or whatever. I’m not sure I can handle seeing white slave owners.

  12. miriam l wright
    May 26, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    I was blessed to watch the original Roots when it first aired in 1977 and purchased it on DVD for my family. I looks like this “reimagining” is more like telling the backstory of Kunta and I look forward to watching it.

  13. Pam
    May 26, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    I grew up in a neighborhood with no people of color at all, and my grandparents and mom weren’t exactly paragons of racial tolerance. I watched Roots when it first came out – still in grade school then – and I had this huge…MOMENT. I can pinpoint the time when I started asking questions about “but WHY slavery?” “but WHY segregation?” to that first episode. The Toby/Kunta scene had me sobbing because even then I knew what they were doing. The last thing Kunta had was his name and they were beating even that out of him, and that was wrong as SHIT, I knew it even at eight years old never having met a Black man woman or child. I’m excited it’s going to be re-aired and both my (homeschooled) high school kids are going to be watching it and writing on it as part of their history education.

    • phillygirl
      May 31, 2016 at 1:12 pm

      I wish there were more people like you in the world.

  14. SIPort
    May 26, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    I was not going to watch it, but you have convinced me, Luvvie.

    • May 27, 2016 at 6:50 pm

      And let me know what you think after.

  15. Stacy
    May 26, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    I’ve been seeing the advertisements for the Roots reboot and it occurred to me I had never seen the original (I even judged myself for that). I wanted to make sure I saw it before the new one started and was surprised that you can’t stream it on netflix, google play or hulu. Amazon only has episode 1 for free but iTunes does have the whole series for $24.99 (which I purchased). I watched episode 1 last week and haven’t been able to watch episode 2 yet because I was so effected by episode 1. I’m the person who watched 12 Years a Slave and just got in the bed right after. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, watch another thing, I just needed to lay down. It’s just so hard to watch. Roots episode 1 had me wanting to sit in the corner, hugging my knees, rocking back and forth. I know I need to finish it but I just ain’t ready.

  16. Jaye just J
    May 26, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    I am a mother of young BLACK MEN. I have the original Roots on DVD. I have yet to watch this with my babies, because I get so angry. As a child, my stepmother made my sister and I watch it the day after our Hero, our big brother, was incarcerated for selling drugs and we didn’t understand (I did but my little sister didn’t). She wanted to facilitate discussion and she used this as a starter. I have sat and watched national news cover the repeated deaths of our boys and girls and I want to have a discussion with my guys. Seeing an opening like my stepmother did, I will use this. We’ll watch both and I will talk to them, and discuss my fears, hopes, and dreams for them. Far beyond my usual “Mommy Rants”. I lost a son, not to violence, but he is gone none the less and it makes me cling to and shelter my boys more than I should. Time to open it up a bit. Thank you Luvvie for sharing your views.

  17. Carriecnh12
    May 26, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    I haven’t seen any mention of this on Tumblr as yet, so thought I would do my part in promoting a very important part of my television history, present and future. I remember watching Roots on television late at night back home in Barbados, this was such a huge event back then, there was no one walking about on the road, everyone in every house was locked indoors, taking in a visual experience we have never forgotten.

    Though I may not remember every scene, there are quite a few I remember distinctly, and the every famous one with Kunte Kinte, repeating his given name, as always stuck with me, not only because it was such an emotional and heart rending scene, but also because it instilled a will in me to always hold onto the name my mother gave me, Carolyn, I am always aware and compelled to correct people when they misspell or pronounce it, to other this may seem like a small thing but its not. My nae is a part of my identity, because the true meaning of it is a perfect description of a huge part of personality, of who I am. I AM CAROLYN. 🙂

  18. Kendra
    May 26, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Okay, you’ve convinced me, because I felt the same way. I’ve been wondering though, did you not get into the Underground series? It was everything….

    • May 27, 2016 at 6:49 pm

      I still need to watch Underground. I heard it was dope!

      • Kendra
        June 2, 2016 at 1:13 am

        Guuuurl. Must get to it. I’ve been waiting to see one of your articles on THAT! You got me watching Roots now, but I’ll prob go back to re-binge Underground so I can see some winning.

  19. Maisha G.
    May 26, 2016 at 11:18 pm

    I can see the story being revisited with a new viewpoint, new audience in mind. In fact, that’s something I appreciate about Underground. But IMHO, everyone should still see the original Roots for comparison.
    Roots 2 had always been my favorite, maybe because the history was fresher, but definitely because we got to see Alex Haley’s (James Earl Jones) “eureka” moment when he found his kin in Gambia.

  20. Cin
    May 27, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    White girl here. Watched the original when it first aired. Everyone in our dorm would gather and watch together (because 1977) and we were transfixed. This was not the history that we’d been taught. This was what really happened. We, too, rooted for Kunta when he rejected being called “Toby”. We cried when Kizzy was taken from her parents, were horrified at her rape, and wanted to strangle Missy Anne ourselves. So glad this is being done again for this generation.

    A great exercise for any white person who has any nostalgia for the “Old South” is to read Gone with the Wind, then Roots, then GWTW again. There is no honor there – it was all built with blood money.

  21. Cin
    May 27, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    Hi Luvvie,
    If you could not post my earlier offering, I’d appreciate it. Reading all of the pain here, I don’t think it’s constructive for me to add how I was touched by Roots. There are times to just listen.
    Thanks,
    Cin

    • May 27, 2016 at 6:49 pm

      Nah. What you said was valid and I think it has a place in this conversation. Chantay, it stays.

  22. Tee
    May 27, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    I’ve seen “Rutts” as my Granny says 50/11 times and all of the spinoffs. Love Forrest Whitaker but why isn’t chicken George playing chicken George. Been Vereen still around.

    • phillygirl
      May 31, 2016 at 1:16 pm

      Or Usher, who is Ben Vereen 2.0.

  23. Kunta-Reading-Geordie
    May 31, 2016 at 6:37 am

    Fun and totally irrelevant fact: My white mother in law seems to have the teensiest little crush on Levar Burton. She listens to The Bible Experience and gets all giddy when she explains “Geordie reads John! (*giggle*)”.
    It’s seriously the cutest thing.

  24. Robyn
    June 7, 2016 at 5:02 am

    When I watched the first episode, I looked at the actor playing Kunta’s uncle and said to myself, “how interesting, they have an Igbo playing a Madinka.” Did not recognize Derek Luke until someone else mentioned it.