The History Channel won a recent bidding war over the right to remake classic miniseries Roots. BET’s success in rerunning the original series last December and the recent rash of films addressing slavery — most prominently 12 Years a Slave — were enough to appeal to the networks. Of course, we have some heavy doubts in this prospect. Roots is so culturally ingrained that simply mentioning the name “Kunta Kinte” is enough to get a glimpse of recognition from any kid who had a lazy American History teacher put in a videotape at some point in high school. A huge cultural movement in the late ’70s, Roots is credited with changing the very way Americans spoke about and addressed race, especially in regards to slavery. The original Roots was a conduit for Americans to talk about those topics in a way that they otherwise hadn’t been forced to. When it appeared in their homes, every night, spoken by some of their favorite stars, slavery became inescapable. And beyond that, it became tangible. Instead of thinking of some abstract person suffering, there were names and faces attached to that experience. And names and faces attached to the slaveowners, traders, and overseers, as well. For many people, this was the first time these horrors had been expressed to them at all.
Now, it’s easy to say we don’t need Roots any more. And in some ways, we don’t. There are now plenty of resources available to break the verbal barriers around slavery. We have 12 Years a Slave, we have Amistad, we have Django Unchained, we even still have the original miniseries itself. But merely informing is no longer enough in the Internet age. What we could use is an entertainment event that deepens our shared cultural understanding around slavery. We have other issues besides simply racism and prejudice that need to be openly discussed. The class structure and economic disparity in America all come from that early economic structure. A whole war was fought on the basis of not just racial discrimination, but class oppression.
Additionally, there are the intertwined issues of sexism. Slavery is rarely explored from a female point of view (though 12 Years a Slave proved that there are plenty of stories waiting to be told) and the legacy of slavery certainly extended far beyond the reaches of the plantation. Roots itself extends to the post Civil War era, with the same family still struggling even though they have been freed.
And beyond that, one of the best things about Roots is how much it’s informed by its time and place. The production value and aesthetic style screams “1970s.” We care far more about grittiness and supposed “authenticity” now, so updating the surface details could help a younger generation immerse themselves in the narrative. Essentially, separating what made Roots a great piece of TV from what makes it a great tool for smart storytelling will keep this remake from turning into a series of callbacks to the original.
Essentially, the main challenge is no longer depicting the slave experience, as we’ve become more familiar with it, but to tell us something about how the slave experience still matters to our modern world. It does, greatly, but the orignial Roots did not have the shared vocabulary we have now (as much as they’re misused, concepts like “white privelege” have been very useful in this regard) to discuss it. Though shallow remake after shallow remake might make this feel like a bad idea, it doesn’t have to be. But History Channel has to challenge themselves to not just echo the Roots of a generation ago, but figure out how to enrich the overall cultural discussion about the issues of the period. And frankly, with a slavery film potentiall up for the Best Picture Oscar, the competition is very stiff.