What History Wants You To Know About 'Roots'

Reboot to stand apart from 1977 miniseries
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Related:MCN Review: 'Roots'

History on Memorial Day is launching its eight-hour Roots miniseries based on Alex Haley’s classic novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. History general manager Jana Bennett says the network’s four-night Roots miniseries is more of a revision than a remake of ABC’s groundbreaking 1977 Roots miniseries that will feature a more definitive historical retelling of African Warrior Kunta Kinte and his family’s struggle over many generations to survive slavery and eventually regain freedom.

Here’s what Bennett and History want you to know about Roots.

This is not your father’s Roots: “If you think back to 1977 when the first Roots television series was launched and then think about now 39 years later, there’s a lot more scholarship that’s gone on about the history of Africa and the history of the middle passage – there hasn’t been a lot of historical examination of it including the numbers involved, the uprising of the slaves on the ship, and the nature of the trade economically. There’s a lot more about the culture and the cities in Africa, so we’ve been able to add a lot more scholarship to this new vision of Roots. It’s an update – not just in terms of television technique and a whole new generation of actors -- but actually new scholarship woven into the narrative. We are telling Kunta Kinte’s story as well as his descendants’ stories, but we’re also bringing in fresh eyes to the story. Every night has a different director to reflect their vision. It’s new on alot of levels.”

The reboot is relevant to today’s issues: “There’s shared history, which is something that should be understood and appreciated by people living in America today. It’s also an international story because it’s a very big piece of history in terms of how America was made and how it affected Africa, so there’s a universality to the story, which makes it relevant now and going forward. We tell stories in history, but also history doesn’t stand still, so there’s always new things to say. When we decided to do Roots, we didn’t know how this would fit with current events at the time. We didn’t know about #BlackLivesMatter rising as a movement, nor about the debate about race in this country and the forms that it has taken this year. But as time has gone by since we decided to make this revision of Roots I have to say it lands right in the middle of very current debates about the nature of this society, so I think its even more relevant than we would have thought it was going to be. It was already going to be a universally epic story shared by all Americans, but it’s even more relevant in terms of the current debates happening about society today.”

Roots is focused on historical authenticity: “What we’ve been able to achieve is a high level of authenticity which is obviously fitting for the History Channel to be able to offer that to viewers. That includes bringing in archeologists and historians to tell us how to depict the towns and kingdoms in Africa, but also [costume designer] Ruth Carter’s costumes and designs are absolutely wonderful. The color indigo you’ll see every night was drawn from what dyes we knew were being used then. Also, women’s roles are really powerful and even more vividly drawn and upfront.  You’ll see that from the roles of Matilda and Kizzy – they really put women more into the forefront because they do play a historical role in the story of Roots, and were very resilient. They literally brought through the next generations, so from all those respects we brought in a lot of historical resources to the telling of Roots. It enhances our understanding in a lot of different ways.”

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