By JAMES PYLANT
Copyright © 2016 | Posted 27 May 2016
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“The two most important days in a man’s life are the day he is born and the day he understands why,” we hear as Kunta Kinte is shown awakening to find himself lying on his back, chained in the dark entrails of a slave ship. It’s a powerful opening scene in what the History Channel calls a “reimagining” of Roots, the groundbreaking TV miniseries. Based on Alex Haley’s bestseller, Roots: The Saga of An American Family, the 1977 miniseries won nine Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody Award—an intimidating legacy for a remake.
Kunta Kinte’s original portrayer, LeVar Burton, is executive co-producer of the new version of Roots. The role he originated (but shared with John Amos playing him as an older man) is depicted in the new miniseries by Malachi Kirby, who does a fine job in that role, though he does not attempt to imitate Burton’s Kunta.
There are other differences, too. The original miniseries changed the names of some of the characters in Haley’s novel, but the 2016 version sticks to the real names—to an extent. As the first episode unfolds, Kunta is kidnapped in Africa, transported to the American colonies, and sold to the Wallers, whose surname was changed to Reynolds in the 1977 version. The name change may have been due to taking license by creating a scene in which “Mrs. Reynolds” has an affair with her brother-in-law, resulting in the birth of a daughter, Missy Ann. That scene does not appear in the new miniseries, though Kunta is shown angrily accusing his slave master of fathering Missy Ann.
Four writers contributed to the teleplay for new Roots. The second episode depicts Kizzie—Kunta’s daughter—giving birth to George (later known as Chicken George), the product of a rape committed by Tom Lea, played by 38-year-old Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. In the original miniseries, Lea’s portrayer (renamed Tom Moore) was Chuck Connors, who was then in his mid-50s. The scriptwriter has Meyers’s Lea holding Kizzie’s newborn while proclaiming, “I’m going to name you after my daddy. What do you think about that? George Lea the second.”
In a letter written by Tom (or Thomas) Lea’s son William in 1880, he identifies his father as the son of Major Lea.1 In the third episode, the script also calls Tom Lea’s wife “Patricia” when her name was actually Sally.2 “What the hell you know about children—since you can’t have none?” Lea asks his wife. Mrs. Lea, in fact, was the mother of at least four children.3 Yet Haley’s book was not without controversy, the author having been sued for plagiarism and drawing criticism for relying on family tradition over documentary evidence.4
Remaking a much-beloved, critically acclaimed film is tricky. Some will like the “reimagining” of Roots, others will not. The 1977 miniseries galvanized Americans—prying open eyes to the barbarism of slavery and the reality that white masters commonly fathered the offspring of enslaved African mothers. It also introduced a generation to genealogy, shifting away from the traditional view of it as the pursuit of the elite and thereby accessible to anyone.
Roots airs on the History Channel over four consecutive nights at 9 p.m. beginning Monday, May 30.
- Caswell County Family Tree,” online database (http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=caswellcounty&id=I3437 : accessed 26 May 2016), includes a transcription of a letter from William Lee, Caswell County, N.C., to John M. Lea, Esq., Nashville, Tenn., 23 January 1880.
- Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, “Roots and the New ‘Faction’: A Legitimate Tool for Clio?” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 89 (January 1981): 5—26, specifically 15; digital image at Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways (http://www.HistoricPathways.com : accessed 25 May 2016).
- Ibid., 15-16.
- Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35-49, specifically 38 and 46.