This is the last daily recap 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 entire series yet, you may be spoiled.
The new Roots series ended last night and, having spent a lot of time researching the original book and television miniseries, I am really impressed with the reimagined Roots.
Across its four episodes, Roots covered over a hundred years and featured almost a dozen significant characters. The scale of the story makes it difficult to maintain continuity and momentum and the final episode suffers at times from these narrative challenges. When Chicken George (Regé-Jean Page) returns from England as a free man, we meet the family he was forced to leave behind. Viewers are introduced to his and Matilda’s (Erica Tazel) children, but other than Tom (Sedale Threatt, Jr.) none of these characters are on screen long enough to learn anything about them. The most troubling example of this rushed pacing is when Tom sees Irene (Carlacia Grant) being raped by a white man in a barn. Witnessing this horrific act convinces Tom to collaborate with Nancy Holt (Anna Paquin), a Union spy who is masquerading as a Southern belle. Irene, however, does not appear much in the episode before or after this rape scene and Carlacia Grant does not appear among the principle actors credited for episode four in A+E’s promotional materials. Unlike the story arc for Kizzy, where sexual violence is part of the fully realized character, rape is used here more as a plot device.
Still, there is much to like about this episode. Like Kunta Kinte fighting with Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment in the Revolutionary War, the writers added another battle scene that does not appear in the original book or miniseries. George joins other black soldiers (including rapper Tip “TI” Harris as Cyrus) at the Battle of Fort Pillow. In this Civil War fight, Confederate soldiers commanded by Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest killed over three hundred African-American Union troops after the Union troops had surrendered. This is a fascinating addition for two reasons. First, the film Forrest Gump (1994) made a joke of the fact that the title character was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who served as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. If the original Roots challenged the legacies of epic and racist films like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), this reference to the Fort Pillow Massacre and Nathan Bedford Forrest is a subtle challenge to the ways the histories of the Confederacy are still soft peddled in popular media and public discourse. Second, this scene highlights how military service has been both a point of pride and, at times, disillusionment for African Americans. Roots debuted on Memorial Day, which makes the addition of Fort Pillow Massacre scene all the more poignant.
The music in Roots has been superb and a tune from earlier episodes show up here again. An African-American string group is playing the song that Kunta Kinte learned from his mother in the Gambia. And we’re told that musicians play the song across the South, although they do not know exactly where it came from. This music narrative line has been subtle, never more than a couple of minutes in each episode, but it highlights how African culture helped create American culture and how much cultural mixing and remixing took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
This new Roots also reimagined the naming scene from the original miniseries beautifully. The scene is repeated in every episode, but changed in important ways each time. In this final episode, Tom holds his baby daughter while his father, George, looks on. The scene is touching because neither man knows exactly how to perform the ceremony in the traditional way. “What do I do daddy? How do I give her her name the right way?,” Tom asks. George replies, “I can’t say I know for sure. Just talk to her.” Holding his baby daughter, Tom says, “I don’t know any Africa words. I know you’re my first baby not born a slave…still gonna have to fight to stay free…everyday…always gonna be somebody who wants to take away your freedom…That’s why I got to tell you this story, so I can be the kind of father I want to be.” The screenwriters, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, did something remarkable here: They took one of the most iconic scenes in television history and made it even more moving.
The series opens with a brief voice over by Alex Haley (Laurence Fishburne), and the series concludes with Haley seated at a typewriter working on the story we have just watched. Haley is joined in the room by George and Tom (his great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather), and then walks through a field where he sees more of his ancestors (Kizzy, Kunta, Omoro and Binta. “The truth can never be known, it can only be told in a story,” Haley says. “I hope my story honors him.”
Having spent hundreds of hours reading Haley’s archived letters, drafts and notes, I was captivated by the end of this episode. In his unpublished manuscript “My Search for Roots,” Haley described how he felt haunted by the spirits of his ancestors as worked on Roots. “Sometimes I would feel as if I was going crazy or something. Not really ghosts, they seemed fleshed in some ephemeral way, but translucent… I had the feeling they were right there in the room with me, sitting in chairs watching, with no eye or face movements.” What became clear to me as I researched Making Roots was that the boundaries between fact and fiction in Haley’s story were less important and less interesting than how he conjured the lives of his family into this epic, mythical story. The final scene of the series captures this sense of conjuring beautifully and the new Roots series is an entertaining and timely update on this cultural phenomenon.
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.