‘You can’t buy a slave, you have to make a slave’ Connelly the Foreman on the Waller plantation
‘You must hear your name first… your name is your spirit, your name is your shield’
One of the defining moments of my life was reading ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley when I was 8 years old. [Yes I know… not suitable for young children. I was precocious. Don’t blame me] The knowledge of the not-fictional nature of the book gives me chills to this day. The book is detailed and graphic. Neither of the TV editions of ROOTS, goes into as much detail as the book. A few months after I read the book, NTA decided to show the 1977 edition. The whipping scene was so hard to watch, it feels like it is seared unto the brain forevermore. A few years ago I bought the complete ROOTS boxset. It includes:
- Roots: The Original Series,
- Roots: The Next Generation, and
- Roots: The Gift.
It is a hard watch. So when I heard of the new series, I was torn as to whether or not to watch it. However, I decided to. It was a traumatising experience. But necessary, I believe. I think everyone should watch either of the editions or read the book.
I do not believe in watching horrific graphics for fun. So I tend not to watch horror films of films with excessive violence. ROOTS is a necessary part of our landscape. We try to escape from the tendrils of slavery and shut its memory into the coffers of our mind. And we fail miserably. How we fail! It eats away at the fibre of group relationships like a flesh-eating worm and we lock the decay away, suffocating on the stench in the humidity of human oblivion. But it smells. How it smells! And still we pretend that group interaction today has not been affected by this, the gravest sin of humanity.
While watching ROOTS, if you see any parallels between then and now, this should make us take notice. Notice that many things have changed but many things remain the same. I think that the new edition was at times too aware of present day feelings. But again how could you not be? If you read/watch ROOTS today, you will be shocked at how slowly change has been wrought. We are so intent on labelling people as good or bad, we forget that people CANNOT be separated into monsters and saints. It is actions that are good or bad. Not people. People are just people. And if you hold up an oppressive system in anyway then you are complicit in it. Your action/inaction makes you complicit. No matter how good a slave owner is, his actions are oppressive. He has still decided that the trade in human beings is alright, because it does him no harm, but makes him richer. Think about it.
So the narrative seems to account for current sensibilities in a way that the first edition did not. Maybe that is not such a bad thing. Think about it. We look at Tom Lea as a horrible person, but he was not doing anything out of the ordinary. He sold his son and his grandchildren, but so many people did the same and he thought he was not such a bad guy. He felt oppressed. Think about it. Maybe our moral compass should not be what is acceptable, but what is right. And what is right? Human dignity. Anything that accords all people as much dignity as YOU think YOU deserve, that is right.
A few thoughts on the production itself. The whipping scene is still as horrific. The acting was great. The cast was outstanding. Special mention has to be made of Rege Jean-Page’s turn as Chicken George. George was always the star of the show, with his flamboyance and style. Ben Vereen was quite good in that role in the 1977 edition. But I think Rege drew me in from his first appearance on screen. Rege made Chicken George many-layered. Chicken George wanted to be loved by his slave owner/father. He wanted the privilege of whiteness. In the end he could not outrun his skin. He accepted himself. Rege showed the complexity of Chicken George’s journey and character arc in this role.
Another major change in the new edition is the attempt to show Jufureh as a thriving city, rather than the hamlet of the first edition. While there was much to be said for doing so, there are a couple of inaccuracies in the timeline. Kunta says he wants to serve the Mansa (King). However, the Mali empire that used Mansa as a regal title became defunct around 1610. Too early for Kunta Kinte to use that title as he (Kunta) supposedly fought in the Revolutionary war (1775–1783). There are a few other anachronisms which I will not mention. You can read my earlier piece on West African history here.
Nevertheless, the concerted effort to connect the narrative to the characters’ ancestral home gives the screenplay a lot of its heart. The naming ritual which consists of presenting the child to the sky, has much more resonance in this edition. When Kizzy attempts to kill herself and baby George but changes her mind and then decides to live, the naming ritual takes on an added significance. It becomes a reaffirmation of life. Binta – Kunta mother’s song is especially poignant. Her song followed them across the waters. It follows Kizzy through her ordeal and objectification at Tom Lea’s hands. It follows George into battle. And it also shows us a practical example of appropriation, when it gets turned into a Southern folk song. No royalties paid.
The new edition is shorter. About 4 hours shorter. There were incidences in the action that highlighted this difference. The need to have a series of quick paced sequences rather then the slow paced journey into death that was the reality of slavery. The most jarring of these is when George shoots Fredrick Murray at the end. In my opinion, this would have been highly unlikely in reality and the effect of it is to condense over 50 minutes of screen action into one minute. It alters the reality of slavery, suggesting that a black man could shoot a white man in front of witnesses and live to tell of it.
A word on Language: Connelly was right (see quotation above). A person is made a slave. Nobody is born a slave. Even children born into slavery were born INTO it. For a few seconds when their lungs greeted the air that will sustain them till death, they were free. Then enslaved. Which is why I hate labels. When we label someone, we reduce the complexity and vastness of their possibility to one thing and one thing only. And in most cases that one thing is a pejorative. Slave. Immigrant. Refugee. I know many people rail against political correctness because they see it as a restriction of their freedom of expression. However, the restriction is not on the expression, but on the use of that expression to restrict someone else’s equal humanity. The language we use is evidence of our values.
One thing I still find heartbreaking about the narrative is the relay nature of it. When the runner’s time is done it is done. When Kunta is stolen, Omoro and Binta cease to exist for us; Kizzy is sold, Kunta’s screen time ends. How heartbreaking is that in a world that prides itself so much on heritage and family, to erase a family. But batons are passed on – Binta’s lullaby, the sky, a sense of self.
(For a more cumulative effect/volume of the Atlantic slave trade, see this interactive map here. Between 1525 and 1866, they were more than 35000 slave trading voyages between Africa and the Americas. People enslaved and traded – 10.7 million. Human cost: Infinite)
A word from the stars of ROOTS:
“Our history does not begin at slavery. Be proud of your ancestry. Don’t think that it’s a negative thing to be African. It’s a beautiful thing. A positive thing. Those people who were enslaved were not weak. So it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Those were strong people. If they weren’t they wouldn’t have been slaves. They woulda just been killed. They were taken because they were so strong. And they survived.” –Malachi Kirby (Kunta Kinte)
‘If you tell human stories properly and with respect… there will always be redemption’ –Rege Jean-Page (Chicken George)
Finally a message for Africa: Pan-Africanism is the belief that all black people are bound and can only achieve true liberty in unity. We Africans have come this way before, we have read these lines, cried this lament, too many times. There have been too many rhymes sent up to deities who have given us power to break free of the cords with which we have bound our brothers and sisters, bound our own souls. I believe the earth has drunk more of our blood then it has drunk the water from the skies. Freedom is an abstract concept. Freedom is a becoming. It is not a work of a moment. The moment slavery ended, black people in America (and across the world) did not achieve equality, and have not done so as yet. It is a becoming. When the colonial masters marched out of Africa fleeing from malaria and mosquitoes, African states did not immediately achieve equality, and they have not as yet. Freedom is a becoming. And at least it has started.
‘They can’t sell my wife and child no more. No more that! No more that! We free now. Bless the Lord!’
Freed man, USA, 1865
Cited in Paying Freedom’s Price: A History of African Americans in the Civil War
The African American History Series
by PD Escott