This is the second of four daily recaps by Matthew Delmont, author of Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (coming August 2016) about the remake of Alex Haley’s Roots television miniseries airing on HISTORY Channel. If you have not seen the first two episodes yet, you may be spoiled.
I loved this episode and appreciate how it takes the original Roots story in new directions. It is much more clear now what the History Channel means when they call this a “reimagined” version of Roots.
The episode opens with Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) fleeing through the woods, being pursued by the Connoly (Tony Curran), the wicked overseer who whipped him at the end of the first episode. Kunta tackles Connoly and then uses the overseer’s rifle to choke him. As he chokes Connoly to death, Kunta declares, “My name is Kunta Kinte.” This scene of Kunta achieve revenge is unlike anything in the original Roots television miniseries or book where, after the failed slave ship revolt, Kunta Kinte is never shown fighting back physically. After seeing Kunta brutally beaten in the first episode, this scene is cathartic and shows that the new series is creating its own version of the Roots story.
This opening scene is set in 1782 during the Revolutionary War. The other characters in the woods are British troops. Kunta appeals to the British, “I will kill many Americans for your King,” and the troops direct him to travel east to the Great Dismal Swamp to join up with Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment of escaped slaves. The ensuing battle scene shows Kunta as a skilled swamp fighter. This Revolutionary War plotline is also a new addition to Roots. It should appeal to History Channel viewers who appreciate military history, but the scene also establishes this new Kunta Kinte as a sort of action hero akin to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Kunta’s fighting skills, however, do not keep him from being captured by slave catchers who cut off part of his foot to ensure that he won’t run away again.
When Kunta returns to Dr. Waller’s plantation, we meet the first major female character in the series, Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Belle tends to Kunta Kinte’s severed foot, but also has tough words for him when his will to recover and survive wanes. “What kind of warrior waits to die?,” she asks. “I seen plenty of men far worse of than you, no strip of skin left on they back. Overseer beat them near to death. I seen women worked to death, girls bodies used up hard, no older than children. But they found a way to get up. They was warriors, not you.” After watching Kunta Kitne fight and kill to try to achieve freedom, Belle’s speech is important because it makes it clear that enslaved people fought in a variety of ways.
After Belle and Kunta get married, Belle gives birth to a baby daughter. As Kunta and Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) carry the baby to perform the naming ritual, they encounter white patrollers on horseback. “Everybody in the state of Virginia knows a nigger can’t be on the road after sundown,” one of the patroller says. “We are not in the road,” Kunta replies. “This is Dr. Waller’s property.” The exchange calls to mind the curfews passed to quell protests in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. Things escalate when the patrollers demand a tax or the baby in exchange for letting Kunta and Fiddler go. Fiddler creates a diversion, telling the men, “You got it all wrong. My name ain’t ‘uncle,’ my name ain’t ‘boy.’ My name ain’t ‘Fiddler.’ My name is ‘Henry.’ So y’all call me Henry.” Fiddler’s real name is never revealed in the original Roots and in a series that places such emphasis on the importance of names, this is a powerful scene. After declaring his name, Fiddler/Henry tells Kunta to run and then attacks and kills two of the patrollers before being killed by the third white man. Whereas the original Fiddler (played by Louis Gossett Jr) dies peacefully under a tree, this new character fights to the death to protect Kunta and the baby. Kunta returns home and asks Belle to join him in running away. “I hate this country,” Kunta cries, “America will never be my home. I hate this country.” The scene concludes with Kunta naming the baby girl, “Kizzy.”
After a brief scene with Kizzy as a six year old, the episode jumps to 1798 when Kizzy (E’Myri Lee Crutchfield) is fifteen years old. Kunta speaks plainly to Kizzy about the perils facing enslaved women. “The country will always be dangerous for you,” he says. “Many masters, masters’ sons, and overseers rape slave women and pay no price. If you ever fear it, you must kill the toubob [white man] and do it without hesitation, only if you are prepared to die yourself.” This scene sets up the episode’s climatic conclusion. After helping her boyfriend, Noah (Mandela Van Peebles), plan an escape, Kizzy is sold away to a small farm owned by Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Lea rapes Kizzy the first night, declaring “I just spent six hundred dollars on you” and “this is my right,” while Kizzy pleads, “kill me.” When Kizzy delivers the child born from this rape, she initially refuses to hold the baby. Later that night, she is crying and holding the baby alongside a riverbank. She fills her apron with rocks and walks with the baby into the water. As Kizzy considers killing herself and the baby, she has visions of Kunta and Belle and the grandparents in the Gambia, Omoro and Binta, whom she has never met. Kizzy walks back out of the water and talks to the baby: “I’ve got to tell you about our people. My father is Kunta Kinte, he is a Mandinka warrior. You have got to know who he is so you can know who you are.” Raising the baby to the sky, Kizzy repeats the line from the iconic naming ritual: “Behold the only thing that is greater than you.”
This scene is a remarkable reworking of the Roots story. Haley’s book and the 1977 television miniseries showed the enslaved characters suffering pain, but the original Roots provided little insight into the ways their painful experiences could be traumatic or leave emotional scars on enslaved people. The idea that Kizzy would consider killing herself and her child was almost unfathomable to Haley, but here it provides insight into what it means for Kizzy to survive as an enslaved person.
In veering from the original story, this episode makes Roots even more powerful.
Coming 8/2/16: Making Roots: A Nation Captivated; to pre-order a copy, visit your local bookstore, or order online at Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or UC Press (save 30% at ucpress.edu; enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).
Matthew F. Delmont is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University and the author of Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation and The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ’n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia.