Veganism, like other religions, is slavery and tyranny.
Slavery of non-vegans.
Tyranny against non-vegans.
Criminalization of non-vegans.
Human Rights Now.
– Gameness til the End
Part 1: An edgy new Kunta Kinte arrives in America.
Part 2: The training of warrior Kizzy.
Part 3: The saga of Chicken George and his dad—master Tom Lea.
Part 4: A Civil War massacre, freedom, and a taste of “Django Unchained.”
Roots (2016 miniseries) is an upcoming American miniseries and a remake of Roots.
Roots (miniseries) is an American television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family; the series first aired, on ABC-TV, in 1977. Roots received 37 Emmy Award nominations and won nine. It won also a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. It received unprecedented Nielsen ratings for the finale, which still holds a record as the third highest rated episode for any type of television series, and the second most watched overall series finale in U.S. television history. It was produced on a budget of $6.6 million. The series introduced LeVar Burton in the role of Kunta Kinte.
A sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, first aired in 1979, and a second sequel, Roots: The Gift, a Christmas TV movie, starring Burton and Louis Gossett Jr. first aired in 1988. A related film, Alex Haley’s Queen, is based on the life of Queen Jackson Haley, who was Alex Haley’s paternal grandmother.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an international activist movement, originating in the African-American community, that campaigns against violence toward black people. BLM regularly organizes protests around the deaths of black people in killings by law enforcement officers, and broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system.
In 2013, the movement began with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. Black Lives Matter became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African Americans: Michael Brown, resulting in protests and unrest in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York City.
Since the Ferguson protests, participants in the movement have demonstrated against the deaths of numerous other African Americans by police actions or while in police custody, including those of Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and Freddie Gray. In the Summer of 2015, Black Lives Matter began to publicly challenge politicians—including politicians in the 2016 United States presidential election—to state their positions on BLM issues. The overall Black Lives Matter movement, however, is a decentralized network and has no formal hierarchy or structure.
We Watched “Roots” With a “Roots” Expert
MAY 31, 2016 5:00 AM
What are the most-watched shows on television these days? I checked. For network TV, as of the end of March, Nielsen listed The Big Bang Theory, with 14.2 million viewers, followed by Empire, with 12.5 million. (Empire led among black viewers.) For regular cable, The Walking Dead dominated with 14 million viewers. In the premium realm, in April, the season premiere of HBO’s popular Game of Thrones drew roughly 8 million viewers.
Compare that with Roots, the eight-part miniseries based on Alex Haley’s fictionalized family history, which first aired on ABC in January 1977. America’s population was just 220 million then—it’s 323 million now—and nearly 29 million households watched Roots that first night. By the finale, more than 36 million households (100 million-plus individuals) were tuned in. It was the most-watched miniseries in history, beating out the previous year’s Gone With the Wind saga, which depicted a romantic version of slavery.
In his upcoming book, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated, Arizona State University historian Matthew Delmont recalls how the original book and series took flack for historical inaccuracies, and how Haley himself was attacked for plagiarizing passages and for playing loose with the facts. But simply depicting the horrors of slavery onscreen was revolutionary. Delmont quotes a Washington Post reviewer: “The scenes on the ship, with the slaves chained together, stacked alongside one another, lying in their vomit and excrement…are something we have never seen before. We have read about slavery. But we have never seen it, never in such painstaking detail and never being experienced with such excruciating pain.”
As you’ve likely heard, Roots is back, re-envisioned for a 2016 audience and airing for four straight nights on History starting last night. (You can watch it here.) And who better to watch it with than Delmont? What follows is the first of our four conversations recapping each installment as it airs. And yes, of course there will be spoilers.
Michael Mechanic: I’m old enough to have seen Roots when it first came out, and I can remember how big a deal it was. Everyone I knew was watching it. I was 11, growing up in a white, middle-class neighborhood in Wisconsin, and it had a big impression on me. Matt, you’re younger than me and African American. How did you come to see the original series—let alone write a book about it?
Matthew Delmont: I was born just after Roots aired in 1977, so my first memory is watching part of it in school when I was 10 or 11. I don’t remember much about the first time, other than the scene where Kunta Kinte is whipped until he accepts his slave name, Toby. I became interested in Roots a few years ago because I’m a historian, and my research focuses on African American history and television history. I was surprised to learn that, while there are a few good articles and chapters, no one had written a book about Roots. As it turns out, there are great archival sources: Alex Haley’s papers are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, the University of Tennessee, and Goodwin College in Hartford. And the University of Southern California has the papers of television producers David Wolper and Stan Margulies, who brought Roots to ABC. So I’ve rewatched and reread Roots a few times over the past couple of years.
MM: That whipping scene is etched in everyone’s memories, I think.
MD: It was just as powerful in the new Roots as it was in the original. I knew what was going to happen, but I still teared up. What stood out were the reaction shots of other people watching Kunta being whipped—both the enslaved characters and the plantation family.
MM: Yeah, I mean, you have Fiddler, Forest Whitaker‘s character, quietly begging Kunta to say “Toby” and end the punishment. What read did you get from the slave owners?
MD: From Fiddler and the other enslaved characters, you get the sense that this type of violence was commonplace on the plantation, but still horrific. Also, they have the scene take place on Christmas day, which makes it even more troubling. From the owners, seeing Mrs. Waller (Katie McGuinness) shudder was interesting. She had given Kunta the name, and now she is watching the overseer beat him into accepting it. The scene also made me think of how much more explicitly violent television is today than it was in 1977. I don’t think this scene is more gory than Game of Thrones, but the stakes felt higher to me.
MM: I noticed that too, back on the slave ship. In fact, let’s step back to Kunta Kinte’s village in Africa. The origin story is a bit different this time around. These Mandinka tribesmen are Muslim horse warriors. And part of the new story line involves blacks enslaving blacks.
MD: The Kinte family in the original book and series are Muslim, but the politics around this faith/identity today are more controversial now than in 1977.
MM: They played it up in the new version more than I recall in the old one.
MD: That’s funny, I thought the references to Kunta’s faith were sort of understated.
MM: Okay, well, as a kid watching the original, I was probably oblivious. What else did you notice?
MD: The Africans enslaving Africans is an important difference. In the original version, there were blacks who helped the European slave catchers, but here it was presented more as part of conflict among tribes within the Gambia (and other parts of Africa) that led to the capture and sale of slaves. I’m not sure what I think about this. This representation is more historically accurate, but the “blacks capturing blacks” is one of the points people fall back to when they want to make it seem like slavery wasn’t that bad.
MM: I see how that would evoke complicated feelings. I guess people have been enslaving each other forever, and this shares the blame around a bit. But the European slave trade seems different because of the vastness of the business and the fact that you’re taking people far from their homelands.
MD: Yes, and the fact that, in the New World, slavery became a hereditary condition that could be passed down from mother to child.
Kunta is sold to a Virginia plantation owner. Casey Crafford
MM: Let’s dwell on that a second. When one tribe enslaved someone from another tribe, what was the fate of that slave?
MD: That’s not my area of expertise, but from what I understand, people who were enslaved in those circumstances were held for a period of time. The series seems to reference that when Kunta arrives at the plantation and asks for how long he will be held as a slave. The idea that you would be a slave for your whole life, and your children would also be slaves, was new.
MM: Also, when Kunta is on the wagon pulling into the plantation for the first time, and he sees the slaves in the fields, and he says, “So many!” The scale of it is a shock to him.
“I was struck by how few white stars were in the first episode.”
MD: The scale and economics of slavery were massive on many plantations. I think the first episode does a nice job of pointing to some of these issues while still trying to maintain the narrative.
MM: You’ll recall that in the original, as LeVar Burton emphasized in an interview with Mother Jones, they cast “all of America’s TV dads as villains”—Ed Asner as the slave ship captain, and so on. Who did you like in the new cast?
MD: Forest Whitaker really stood out. I also thought Malachi Kirby, whom I don’t think I’ve seen in anything before, was very compelling at Kunta Kinte. So much of the story turns on whether viewers take to Kunta, and I think he really pulled that off. I was struck by how few white stars were in the first episode. One of the reasons they had Ed Asner show up eight minutes into the original was because the producers were worried white viewers would tune out if they didn’t see recognizable white actors. From that perspective, I thought the casting and pacing of the first hour was really interesting.
MM: I hadn’t thought of that. Let me ask you this: I’ve heard from some black friends that their parents basically sat them down at some point and made them watch Roots. But I don’t know of many white parents who did that, even though this is our common history. I was actually thinking about my 11-year-old daughter and, you know, just not wanting her to experience this horrible stuff. At the same time, I want her to—at least at some point—get a sense of slavery that the schoolbooks don’t deliver.
MD: I don’t know what the right age to watch this is, but one of the things Roots can do is ask viewers to see slavery as a history of thousands of individual people and families. Slavery still isn’t taught very well is schools, and Americans generally prefer not to talk about it too much. When we do discuss it, it is easy to view enslaved people as an undifferentiated mass of people, but we lose sight that these were people and that these people were daughters and sons, mothers and fathers. WhileRoots is fictionalized, it does help to humanize the history of slavery in powerful ways.
MM: The new Roots can’t hope to match the viewership of the old one. How big a deal do you think round two will be?
“Only the Super Bowl gets the kind of audience share Rootsgot in 1977, so the benchmark will have to be different.”
MD: Yeah, only the Super Bowl gets the kind of audience share Roots got in 1977, so the benchmark will have to be different. The new series is well timed. Underground did better than most people expected, and the history of slavery is being talked about more than it has been for a generation.Roots also has an important legacy in TV history, so I think the new series will generate interest for that reason. The shows people write and talk about today (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones) don’t actually have huge numbers of viewers. I’ll be interested to see if Roots can get critical attention in this new media environment.
MM: Oh, every columnist is going to write about it! But back to episode 1: How would you compare the watchability of the old versus the new? I thought this flowed fairly well, but then there were moments that felt abbreviated—like some slaves being sold off literally as soon as Kunta sets foot on the plantation. It felt a little heavy-handed, like, “We only have four episodes, so we’ve got to stuff everything in.”
MD: The production values of the new series (lighting, sets, etc.) make it more watchable than the original. I also felt this sort of time crunch, where they took the first two episodes from the original series and squeezed it into one. Like there was that random scene where an enslaved woman tells Kunta, out of the blue, that he can have her if he wants her. We have no idea who she is, or if she’ll show up in episode 2!
MM: I was flummoxed by her, too. Like, “Whoa! That’s pretty forward there, lady!”
MD: Roots, the book and series, had a problem with gender because Alex Haley was really only interested in advancing the narrative from Kunta in the 1700s to Haley’s birth in the 1900s. So the female characters in the book are really underdrawn. The 1977 series did a bit better, because they had strong actresses like Leslie Uggams, Madge Sinclair and Cicely Tyson, but the first episode makes me worried for how women will (or will not) feature.
MM: Kunta’s daughter Kizzy should be along soon enough. That’s a strong part.
“I knew they weren’t going to be able to take over the ship, but I was still rooting for them…It speaks to the power of the story.”
MD: Yes, we should see Belle in episode 2 and Kizzy in 2 or 3, I guess. A big challenge the producers face is trying to tell this multigenerational story in a way that’s interesting to audiences. I mean, Roots is going to cover dozens of characters over a century, whereas something like Underground can have the same characters develop over a series of weeks or months.
MM: Good point. In the original, I recall Kunta suddenly becoming this old guy.
MM: What else did you like or dislike about episode 1?
MD: I liked the small gestures: Kunta holding another man’s hand on the slave ship as they start to plot the revolt. I liked how the revolt was filmed. Again, I knew what was coming. I knew they weren’t going to be able to take over the ship. But I was still rooting for them, and I was moved by the filming of it. And then the song Kunta shares with Fiddler was nicely done.
MM: Isn’t it funny how we can get wrapped up in a battle knowing that our hero is going to lose?
MD: It speaks to the power of the story. Even more broadly, we know Kunta isn’t going to die, but we still worry for his safety on the boat and later. Getting viewers to identify with an enslaved character in that way is really powerful.
MM: Not just with Kunta, but with the plantation slaves, like Fiddler, who has worked so hard to ingratiate himself with the master, swallowing his dignity, and then he gets screwed over anyway. That stuff just tears at you, the petty cruelties.
MD: And that one of the first things that happens when Kunta arrives at the Waller plantation is that Samson is sold away to Georgia—that years of “good” service don’t count for anything, and families could be broken up at any time. Those are the sort of details I don’t think most people think about in relationship to slavery.
Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) Steve Deitl/History
MM: Meanwhile, the owners are just so wrapped up in their own little dramas that they could give a shit. I find the white characters interesting in that they try to justify these things to themselves.
MD: It’s hard to come away from that first episode and think that there is any such thing as a “good” slave owner. The overseer may be the one to inflict the punishment, but all members of the plantation family are implicated. It will be interesting to see what they do with the different white characters. There was a white indentured servant who participated in the escape at the end of the first series. It is so common for Hollywood films and TV shows to have white savior characters swoop in to save the day. I hope they avoid this trope.
MM: Resist, Hollywood! Resist!
“In Haley’s book, “there isn’t even a white character with a proper name until chapter 50. They are all just called toubob.”
MD: If you read Haley’s book, the white characters have no interiority at all. There isn’t even a white character with a proper name until chapter 50. They are all just called toubob.
MM: That’s super interesting. Okay, we shouldn’t go too long, here, but was there anything that annoyed you about Night 1?
MD: Only the woman who randomly offered herself to Kunta. I’m also not sure why the circumcision scene needed to stay in this new version, and that it seemed to be followed by a very brief masturbation scene in the water.
MM: Oh my god! I didn’t even get that! I thought they were just nursing their painful post-circumcision schlongs in the cool water. You think they were masturbating?
MD: I don’t know. The look on Kunta’s face does look like pain. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.
MM: Well, in the book, which I read as a kid, isn’t he married and has sex before he’s enslaved?
MD: No. Actually one of the weird things is that Kunta is a virgin until he is married in his late 30s. There are a couple of wet dream scenes in the book, which is why I thought maybe they were hinting at something in the new series. But I didn’t mean to take up this much space talking about masturbation!
MM: Oh, there’s always space in our pages for masturbation. This is the internet, after all.
JUN. 1, 2016 6:00 AM
In case you’re just tuning in, we’re watching A&E/History‘s Roots remake with Matthew Delmont, an Arizona State University historian who literally wrote the book on it. Making Roots: A Nation Captivated, which publishes in August, covers the creation of Alex Haley’s fictionalized family history and the resulting 1977 miniseries—the most-watched drama in the history of television. Yesterday we talked about Kunta Kinte’s origin story and his passage to America from West Africa—you can stream episode 1 here.
Today we move on to last night’s episode 2. (Get ready for spoilers.) The episode begins with the enslaved Kunta’s final escape attempt and takes us through his marriage to Belle, the raising of their daughter Kizzy, and, finally, the birth of Kizzy’s son George (a.k.a. Chicken George)—the product of her rape by an odious new master, Tom Lea.
Michael Mechanic: Did you catch Snoop Dogg’s Instagram rant about Roots yesterday?
Matthew Delmont: Yeah, I wasn’t expecting to hear Snoop weigh in—or see LeVar Burton invite Snoop to a beer summit to discuss. The call for a boycott is a bit odd. If Snoop Dogg is saying there should be more television shows and films about black culture and history that aren’t about slavery, I would agree with that. I would love to hear what he has in mind, though: More films like Fruitvale Station, Straight Outta Compton, or Hidden Figures? More shows like Empire or Blackish? The “too many slave movies” thing is a straw-man argument anyway: 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Underground, and Roots stand out recently, but when you look back over the last two decades, there are not a huge number of films or TV series set during slavery.
MM: True enough. Okay, let’s talk about episode 2. A lot happened here, including a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the original. First off, we’ve got slaves killing white men and getting away with it. During his escape attempt, for one, Kunta slays the Wallers’ loathed overseer and is caught in the act by British soldiers, who proceed to conscript him as cannon fodder in their fight against the colonists.
MD: I loved this episode! I particularly liked how it took the narrative in different directions than the original. History/A+E has been promoting this as a reimagined version of Roots, and I saw that come through more here than in episode 1. Kunta joining up with Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, for example. This is not in the book or original TV series, but they tied it nicely into the story. It continued the theme of Kunta being a warrior, while also making an interesting fictional connection to the history of African Americans in the Revolutionary War. Also, Kizzy is a fighter!
MM: Was Dunmore’s regiment a real thing?
MD: Yes, Dunmore recruited slaves and escaped slaves to join his regiment. There’s no evidence Alex Haley’s ancestors fought with this group, but this fictional element added action to the new series.
MM: Personally, I didn’t quite buy that those soldiers, no matter their affiliation, would not have strung up a slave for killing a white man. Later, Kizzy kills one of the men transporting her to the new master’s place. Again, I found it hard to believe that they wouldn’t have lynched her. What do you think?
MD: I’m not sure how British soldiers would have reacted to a slave killing a white man, but I appreciate the move away from historical accuracy here.
Kunta signs on to fight for the Brits. Steve Deitl
MM: So you found it credible. But what about Kizzy getting away with killing one of those redneck guys transporting her.
MD: Probably some dramatic license here, too, but since enslaved people were property, any punishment to Kizzy would have come at the expense of her new master. So when Tom Lea says he spent $600 to buy her, that’s one indication why her enslaved life might have been protected.
MM: Let’s talk about Lea, who is excellently played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. This fucker is bad news. He comes in drunk and rapes Kizzy the very first thing when she arrives at his farm. I think we can expect he’s going to be a horror show.
MD: Yes, the last 10 minutes of that episode are about as troubling as anything you are going to see on TV.
MM: It sure seemed to me that Kizzy was getting ready to drown her baby by Tom Lea before having second thoughts.
MD: Normally, I don’t love flashback scenes or character having hallucination or visions, but when Kizzy is in the water, or when Kunta gets his foot chopped off earlier, these flashbacks and hallucinations give some sense that the characters are dealing with trauma or are haunted by what they are experiencing. I think Kizzy being ready to drown baby George is a nod to the major works on slavery that came out after Roots, most notably Toni Morrison‘s Beloved, where death/murder/suicide are things that enslaved people are constantly thinking about.
MM: Another thing this episode opens up in a big way is the awful tension that enslaved families have to live with. You have Missy Anne, the little white girl, adopting young Kizzy as her best friend/plaything. Every bit of kindness or friendship the slaves are shown by the whites comes with a feeling of dread, because it’s all so fragile and capricious.
MD: That comes through so powerfully in this episode. Kunta is constantly telling Belle that they can never be free on this plantation. Dr. Waller has a moment where he looks like he is a hero for delivering the baby Noah (whom he owns, of course), but then later in the episode he tells Kunta he thinks it’s time to start breeding Kizzy with Noah. One of the myths of slavery was that masters and slaves were big happy plantation families, and this really shows all of the ways that is not true.
Matthew Goode as slave owner Doc Waller Steve Deitl
MM: Also, right after Doc Waller delivers Noah from his mother, who is dying because the overseer had forced her to work in the fields against his boss’ orders, Waller is like, “She’s coming out of your paycheck!” The masters almost seem human from time to time, but that spell is broken by these stark acknowledgements that the slaves are, in the end, mere property.
MD: It is easy to see the costumes and the set designs and get lost in the story, butRoots keeps pulling viewers back to the fact that these white characters own the black characters. That’s what I love about the scenes with Kizzy and Missy Anne. The violence here isn’t as explicit as the whipping scenes or the rape scenes, but the casual way in which Missy Anne exerts her claims over Kizzy is so telling. Like, it’s her “right” to see whether Kizzy has pubic hair. It presents the whole idea that friendship could exist in slavery as absurd.
MM: All these subtle, brutal reminders. What else struck you?
MD: That everyone was fighting back. Fiddler fights and dies to help Kunta and baby Kizzy escape, which wasn’t in the original. Kizzy has a whole training montage with Kunta, like a Rocky film or something, and then she is ready to fight when the time comes. Kunta is hardly backing down from anyone—killing the overseer and getting to reassert that his name is Kunta Kinte was a great revenge scene.
Kunta is captured after fleeing Dunmore’s regiment. Steve Deitl
MM: Totally! Yeah, there’s a touch of Django Unchained in here—a little taste of retribution. And Fiddler! Go Fiddler! Even Noah stands up to mistreatment at one point. And the slaves jump in for the save whenever it looks like someone is getting into trouble with the overseer, by saying the master has this or that urgent request for the slave under the gun.
“This new version is more like an action film; the original Roots was like a soap opera.”
MD: The Django Unchained connection is a good one. This new version is more like an action film; the original Roots was like a soap opera. People remember the whipping scene, but the original has lots and lots of talking. I like that they added more action to the narrative. And I thought it was so powerful to have Fiddler declare that he has a name too: Henry. This never comes up in the original, but of course the character is called Fiddler because some white person said it. To have him declare his preferred name and then fight and die was something. In the original, Fiddler, played by Louis Gossett Jr., dies peacefully under a tree.
MM: As a white man watching Roots, I feel a general discomfort, because you have to ask yourself, “If I’d been raised in that time and place and circumstances, would I have been an abolitionist—or would I have participated in the cruelty?” I wonder whether, as a black man, you watch and wonder whether you would have sucked up to the master and played it safe, or whether you’d have been a fighter, like Kunta?
MD: It is so difficult to know. But in this episode, Belle is challenging Kunta and she talks about how many people she has known who are “warriors,” including women, girls, and older enslaved people. What I took from the scene was that surviving slavery in any capacity took a lot of fight. I think this series is working harder to make Kunta a warrior, but Belle’s speech makes it clear that she, Kizzy, and others were fighters in their own right. When I project myself back, I’m light-skinned, good at navigating institutional spaces, and bad at fighting. I can’t see myself as a warrior in the Kunta sense.
Kunta with wife Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), mother of Kizzy Steve Deitl
MM: It’s true that just coping was a major battle. In fact, resisting the urge to strike must have taken a prodigious level of self-control, particularly, perhaps, for some young men. And what was there to gain?
MD: Another quote that stuck with me was when Kizzy told Kunta, “Reading is my way of being a warrior, of being free inside.” That sounds a little corny, but again I think it speaks to the ways different characters are trying to navigate and survive slavery.
MM: Kizzy’s reading was a subversive act—and it results in her getting sold off. It’s nuts how this was seen as such a threat that the white establishment actually made it a criminal offense. Right?
Noah (Mandela Van Peebles) knows Kizzy’s secret: She’s literate. Steve Deitl
MD: Yes. There was a tremendous power that came with literacy. In most of the slave narratives the point at which the author learns to read and write is this watershed moment in their pursuit of freedom. I like how Roots makes this power visible, but also shows how enslaved people had to make sure their masters did not know about their learning. Like when Belle reminds six-year-old Kizzy to count in her head rather than out loud. Such a small moment, but something that should register with viewers, especially those that spend any time around children. I’m alsosoooo glad that Belle and Kizzy were strong characters in this episode! I was really nervous after episode 1.
MM: Yes, although Kunta’s marriage proposal to Belle comes pretty quick. That was a very funny scene. And the wedding! But it’s like anytime there’s a little joy, you cringe because you know how fleeting it all is. It was also kind of funny to hear Kunta’s admonitions to Kizzy. In some ways he’s become the conservative, overprotective dad, and she’s become the rebel.
MD: Roots does have a pretty strong conservative theme going on, the consistent refrain that Kunta’s duty is to start a family. With Kizzy, I think the writers realized that the character had to be more dynamic and assertive than in the original. Leslie Uggams did a great job in 1977, but this new vision of Kizzy as a fighter, someone who will talk back to her dad and Dr. Waller, feels more appropriate for 2016.
This guy is bad news: Jonathan Rhys Meyers as slave owner Tom Lea. Steve Deitl
MM: Even though it probably wasn’t so appropriate in the 1790s.
MD: Yeah, but the actual 1790s would make for very boring TV!
MM: TV? They’d be staring at a broom for entertainment. Anything else we should say about this episode? The acting?
MD: I really have enjoyed Malachi Kirby as Kunta. And I’m excited, and a bit scared, to see what Jonathan Rhys Meyers does with Tom Lea in the next episode. I’m looking forward to Anika Noni Roseas Kizzy—there are three actresses playing Kizzy this time.
MM: But only one Kunta, thank goodness—no jump cut from LeVar Burton to John Amos! It’s a little hard to age a guy so young as Malachi on screen, but they’ve been doing pretty well. I actually find him more compelling as his character matures. As for Meyers: I’m am dreading to see what he’s going to do tonight.
JUN. 2, 2016 6:00 AM
So, we’ve been watching A&E/History’s Roots remake with Matthew Delmont, an Arizona State University historian who literally wrote the book on this: Out in August, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated covers the creation of Alex Haley’s fictionalized family history and the resulting 1977 miniseries on ABC—the most-watched drama in the history of television.
Yesterday, Matt and I talked about the Roots remake as an action flick, and the re-envisioning of Kizzy, Kunta Kinte’s daughter, as a warrior. (You can stream past episodes here.) Today we dig into episode 3—and, yes, there will be spoilers. This penultimate episode revolves around the upbringing of Kizzy’s son “Chicken George” (Regé-Jean Page) and George’s tricky relationship with Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), his ne’er-do-well master and unacknowledged father.
Michael Mechanic: Good morning, Matt! So, Snoop Dogg rants aside, people of all races seem to be welcoming this history. More than 5 million Americans watched the Roots premiere live on Monday, despite overlap with Game 7 of the NBA’s Western Conference finals. (Go Warriors!) And the remake has spawned an interesting Twitter hashtag: #RootsSyllabus.
Chicken George Steve Deitl/History
Matthew Delmont: Yes, like #FergusonSyllabus, #CharlestonSyllabus, #LemonadeSyllabus, people are using this hashtag to share books, articles, films, and other resources related to slavery and African-American history and culture. Five million viewers doesn’t seem like a lot compared to the massive audience that watched Roots in 1977, but there’s a whole different level of viewer engagement with this new Roots. Seeing people express their thoughts in real time on Kizzy, Chicken George, and Tom Lea is amazing, and then having some of the leading historians on slavery tweet to help contextualize this historical fiction is pretty cool.
MM: It’s hard not to love Chicken George. He’s this cocky, vibrant young guy who is allowed to train and fight his master’s gamecocks rather than working the fields. He’s optimistic and trusting, whereas everyone around him, from his mom to old Mingo—who teaches him everything he knows about the birds—has learned by experience that white people are not to be trusted. We also get to know Tom Lea, Kizzy’s serial rapist. He’s a small-time slave owner, an Irishman who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and aspires to be accepted by the Southern gentry. I thought the acting was superb.
MD: The dynamic among Chicken George, Tom Lea, and Kizzy was really well done. The scenes with Kizzy and Lea were difficult to watch, but they painted a clear picture of what surviving slavery looked like for Kizzy.
MM: Every time she sees George showing any kinship with master Tom—his father—it’s like a knife wound for her.
MD: Yes, and I liked the way they slowly revealed how much George knew. In the original series, there’s this tearful reveal where Kizzy tells George that the master is his father. Here he seems to surprise Kizzy by telling her he figured it out on his own. The whole dynamic again shows how tangled the idea of family is during slavery.
MM: At one point, Lea says something that hints at it, and George sort of does a double-take. I think he basically knew, but repressed the thought because he doesn’t want to endanger his position of privilege. He’s light-skinned, gets to travel with the master, gets money and prestige for his showmanship, and some nice clothes—and he isn’t subject to brutal field work. But inside, he knows.
MD: He has to deal with the knowledge that his father owns him. This episode also did a nice job of portraying a dynamic where Lea only owns a handful of slaves. When he talks to Chicken George about the possibility of George getting married, he is very clear that he expects him to keep his wife’s “belly full” in order to “increase my stock.”
MM: Let’s talk about Mingo. Chad Coleman was in The Wire, The Walking Dead—lots of stuff. And he’s perfect as the old slave who has been through the ringer and no longer trusts anyone but his roosters.
MD: Yes, Coleman was really great in this role. I like these moments when you have different black characters sort of mentoring each other, even if they do so reluctantly at first.
Tom Lea “is desperate to prove he’s not trash, and George is his means to get there.”
MM: Like with Fiddler. Both of these guys had places of relative privilege and were loath to put that at risk.
MD: It also showed how many of these enslaved characters have specialized knowledge that is really valuable. We didn’t talk about that in the last episode, but Kunta had skill with the horses, and Mingo and Chicken George have these valuable skills training the birds. What did you make of all the cockfighting? This has to be the most cockfighting on television this decade, right?
MM: Cockfighting was huge in the South—it’s still popular in some circles, although it’s now illegal in every state. But the fights were a good vehicle for the writers to get off the plantation and get outside characters involved—we get to see a wider range of Southern society and the storyline of Tom Lea’s social ambitions. He’s desperate to prove he’s not trash, and George is his means to get there. As for skills, yeah, master Tom doesn’t know shit about training roosters, which gives George leverage. At one point, George actually says to the master something like, “Well, then you can find somebody else to fight your birds.” He uses his power. Of course, it’s limited—and his cash value is obviously a double-edged sword.
MD: I think Alex Haley would have loved this episode. He did tons of research on cockfighting when he was writing Roots, and it’s clear from his notes that he was captivated by Chicken George. I was surprised at how much time we spent with Tom Lea in this episode, though. The duel scene helped convey Lea’s class-status anxiety and it also cemented his relationship with Chicken George, but it seemed thrown in to gesture toward Game of Thrones or something. Like, “Let’s get a sword fight in here!”
MM: Hmm. Was there never a duel in the original? In any case, I felt like it served a purpose: Because George saves his master’s life, Tom Lea is now beholden to him—and so it’s an even bigger deal when he betrays George.
“I couldn’t help laughing when Chicken George has to encourage Lea by saying, ‘You the gamecock now!'”
MD: This duel scene was not in the book or the original series. I agree that it fits in the narrative. I could also see a more subtle commentary on what “civilized” white culture looks like—that you go out in a field and shoot at each other. I couldn’t help laughing when Chicken George has to encourage Lea by saying, “You the gamecock now!”
MM: Ha, yeah! There’s another purpose to that scene as well: It highlights how, if something bad happens to a master, slave families can be torn apart and sold. Which is why George and his free friend attend the duel, and why they push so hard to make sure Tom triumphs. Also, just as an aesthetic thing, this seemed like a more realistic version of what a duel might actually look like than what I’ve ever seen on TV. I mean, usually it’s the old 50 paces, turn, and shoot—and then one or both men go down. But this was a very messy affair: Tom Lea’s hand shaking with nervousness, missing the first shot, then stripping away part of his rival’s face with the second, after which the men fight on, gravely wounded, in the dirt and mud with their short swords. Very, very gritty, and so unlike the past Hollywood depictions of an old-fashioned duel.
MD: Yes, this was a very violent episode, wasn’t it? And in very different ways: The duel is bloody, Lea rapes Kizzy repeatedly, and then the gamecocks are fighting to the death every other scene. Each one has an impact on the lives and futures of the enslaved characters. One thing I liked about the cockfighting theme was the absurdity of Chicken George’s freedom turning on whether that bird won or lost.
Tom Lea Steve Deitl/History
MM: George is so grateful for the opportunity, yet he’s being fucked with in a major way. Lea is betting his own son’s freedom! And then he reneges—I guess we saw that coming.
“When master Tom is told that murderous slaves are on the loose, he stops trusting George on a dime.”
MD: And that’s why the scene and that story arc works. Things can look like they are going well, or like the master might care for his slaves (and in this case, children), but the fates of enslaved people were still tied up with the whims of slave owners. What did you think of Kizzy in this episode?
MM: She was excellent. She really captured the painful dynamic of having trained up as Kunta’s little warrior child, and here she’s losing her son to this rapist master. I also wanted to bring up the pivot around Nat Turner’s rebellion. When master Tom is told that murderous slaves are on the loose, he stops trusting George on a dime and chains him to the wagon then and there. Every slave is suddenly suspect. I think that was also the turning point for George, when he realized he was no better than the rest of them in the master’s eyes.
MD: Yes, things turn very quickly there. That line where one of the other white characters says, “Nat Turner’s a fever—you never know which nigger’s gonna catch it,” was a good encapsulation of that charged moment.
Mingo (Chad Coleman) Michelle Short
MM: How the hell is a slave supposed to protect himself from that kind of paranoia?
MD: Chicken George and Mingo become immediately suspect. It’s like it suddenly dawns on Lea and other slaveholders that enslaved people do not want to be held in bondage and might actively resist. The reference to Nat Turner also made me think of how much historical ground the series is trying to cover—how we move from the War of Independence to Nat Turner to [in the finale] the Civil War. Chunks of time keep passing by.
MM: Yeah, like that jump cut from Kizzy’s initial rape to the delivery of Chicken George. So was Nat Turner in the original Roots? It had to have been.
MD: Yes, and it was a similar kind of moment. They got the date wrong in the original series. I believe they said Nat Turner’s rebellion happened in 1841 rather than 1831. TV and history!
“I have to imagine the writers were thinking about Ferguson, Baltimore, and the curfew rules.”
MM: What would you say were the most striking departures from the original Chicken George saga, not counting the duel?
MD: First, the casting: Ben Vereen played Chicken George in the original. He had the charm of the character down, but it was harder to believe that he was the son of Tom Lea, since he is a darker-skinned actor. And Vereen was about the same age as Leslie Uggams, who played his mom, Kizzy, but that’s another story. I thought Regé-Jean Page played Chicken George very well. The second thing is that, in the original, going to England is a positive opportunity. Tom Lea loses the cockfight bet, but going to England is a chance for George to leave America—he wasn’t forcibly taken away at the end of the episode like he is here. And, while I’m generally not a stickler for historical accuracy, slavery wasn’t legal anymore in England by the late 1830s, so I don’t know what is supposed to happen to George once he gets there.
MM: I had precisely the same thought.
MD: The UK passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. So Chicken George should be free.
MM: Well, maybe he’ll get his wish after all. So, um, how can a historian not be a stickler for historical accuracy?
MD: Well, I do a lot of TV and film history, so I try to remember that these things have to be entertaining and commercially viable first and foremost. If they can besort of historically accurate, all the better! They had some very well-respected historians as advisers on this series and they were much more attuned to getting the details correct.
MM: Okay, best moment in episode 3?
MD: Two moments stood out: The opening scene, where we see Kizzy cleaning herself up after Tom Lea leaves [after raping her yet again]. These details would never have been shown in the original. Anika Noni Rose does an amazing job throughout, and I thought that opening scene really set the tone. And then Marcellus, the free black man who wants to buy Kizzy’s freedom, when he’s talking about how he’s free but he’s growing tired of pulling out his papers every time a sheriff gets in a mood or “some cracker doesn’t like my look.” That seemed like one of the most relevant lines for our contemporary moment. It echoes a line from episode 2, when a white patroller tells Kunta and Fiddler they can’t be in the road after dark. I have to imagine the writers were thinking about Ferguson, Baltimore, and the curfew rules.
Marcellus (Michael James Shaw) and Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose) Kareem Black/History
MM: We’re fearful for Marcellus—almost more so than for the slaves—because we can see how much he’s got to lose, and how much resentment some of the poor whites might have at seeing this free, fairly well-to-do black man in their midst. He would always have to be watching his back. When he rode off in that wagon alone, just going on his way, I was filled with dread that something terrible would happen to him.
MD: Anything else from this episode?
MM: I think we’ve covered it. Until tomorrow, then!
JUN. 3, 2016 6:00 AM
For the past four nights, I’ve been watching A&E/History’s Roots remake with Matthew Delmont, an Arizona State University historian who literally wrote the book on the topic: Out in August, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated covers the creation of Alex Haley’s fictionalized family history and the resulting 1977 miniseries on ABC—still the most-watched drama in the history of television.
Spoiler alert! Yesterday, Matt and I talked up the third installment, the saga of Chicken George and his relationship with his odious master (and dad) Tom Lea. (Here are our chats about episode 1 and episode 2; you can stream all episodes here.) Episode 3 ended with George being hauled off to England as payment for his master’s cockfighting debt. Today we tackle the fourth and final episode. The finale begins with a bit of narration: It’s 40 years later and the South is in an uproar—secession and civil war is coming. Against this backdrop, Chicken George returns from England a free man and sets out to find his family, who have been sold to a new owner. Mr. Murray is a decent guy as slaveholders go, but his son Frederick seethes with racial hatred and resentment about the changes threatening the white Southern way of life. We know straight away the dude is bad news.
Michael Mechanic: My wife and I were just talking about how these good ol’ boys would have been Democrats back then. The Republicans, and most of us forget this, were opposed to slavery: That was one of the main reasons the GOP was established. How things do change!
Matthew Delmont: The Confederates here are obviously the bad guys, but it was hard to watch and not think about all of the debates surrounding the Confederate flag and monuments to the Confederacy and slaveholders. Several scenes referred to the fact that many white people were never going to let this system go—even after the war. Strong echoes to today.
MM: Yeah, Frederick makes that pretty explicit. And you also have these bushwhackers—white vigilantes going around in the woods murdering freed slaves. Is that where the term “bushwhacker” comes from?
MD: I’m not positive on the origins of the term. But Chicken George is there trying to protect a black church from being burned down—it could be 1866, 1966, or 2016. One new scene here was the Ft. Pillow Massacre. I’m fascinated they included this! I couldn’t help think this was a jab at Forrest Gump and the casual way Hollywood has treated the history of the Civil War. Gump is named after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who here gives the orders to murder 300 black Union soldiers who have surrendered.
Good guy: Cyrus (“T.I.” Harris) Steve Deitl/History
MM: How horrific was that scene? The white Union soldiers left standing amid the bodies of their black comrades. Just such a terrible betrayal of human decency.
MD: Yes, the black soldiers talk in the lead-up to the battle about how Forrest doesn’t take black prisoners. I don’t think this is what History’s regular audience is used to seeing about the Civil War. And airing around Memorial Day is a reminder of how military service has looked different for African Americans.
MM: And also how we sometime memorialize very bad men.
MD: Yes, it’s hard to have a romantic view of the slave South or the Confederacy. But people still love to get married at plantations, so I’m not sure what to make of all that.
MM: George’s son Tom, the blacksmith, ends up helping the Northern spies, who are later caught and hanged. I don’t remember much about the Civil War aspects of the original. Maybe you could reflect on that?
MD: Lots more Civil War here. In the original, the producers spent most of their budget on the first two episodes to make sure people would tune in. By the last few episodes they said it was like shooting “Black Bonanza.” They just wouldn’t have had money for a battle scene. But I like what they did with the new series to have George, Tom, and several other characters fighting the war in different ways. I loved Sedale Threatt Jr. as Tom. And I have to admit, I was suspicious of what AnnaPaquin‘s character was going to be like, but when she revealed herself as a spy, I was legitimately excited.
MM: They hanged a white woman! Did you see that coming?
Tom (Sedale Threatt Jr.) isn’t looking for trouble. Steve Deitl/History
MD: No, that was a real surprise. I’m not aware of any historical examples of this, although there were women who spied for both sides. But I think the scene worked to show how demonic Frederick is—and then the visual of the two bodies swinging in the trees and Paquin’s vivid blue dress! Just startling. Reminded me of Kara Walker‘s silhouettes and how they make these plantation ideals into nightmares.
MM: Frederick is a monster. At the same time, both sides in that war would’ve hanged their own soldiers for cowardice, or for trying to desert. So it doesn’t surprise me they might string up a female spy. But I also wanted to talk about the scene near the end, where the free blacks are saying goodbye to Master Murray, and Chicken George shoots Frederick as Frederick is about to shoot Tom, George’s son. As viewers, we’ve seen this buildup of animosity between Frederick and his dad, and Mr. Murray is fully aware that Frederick is a bad seed. Even so, would Chicken George really have gotten away with killing the son of his former master?
Bad guy: Frederick Murray (Lane Garrison) Steve Deitl/History
MD: Probably not. This scene, for me, was an echo of Kunta killing the overseer in episode 2. These characters get revenge is ways that probably aren’t historically accurate—and aren’t in the earlier versions of Roots, but it feels good. We’re asked to identify with Kunta, George, and others, and it is nice to see them fight back and off the bad guys.
MM: Sure, but letting them have that revenge provides an unrealistic relief from the way we experience slavery’s horrors. It’s that Django Unchained thing again. I’m pretty sure I remember Chicken George pulling out a gun in the original and kind of saving the day with a threat, but I’m also pretty sure he didn’t shoot anybody.
“I think the writers figured that post-Django audiences are going to expect that the enslaved people are going to fight and kill sometimes.”
MD: I think this version is trying to have it both ways. There was that great scene earlier on where Tom tells his dad, George, that he is trying to chart the course that is best for his family, and that means not always fighting back even if he wants to. But then the two worst white characters get killed! I think the writers figured that post-Django audiences are going to expect that the enslaved people are going to fight and kill sometimes. I also have a totally unsubstantiated theory that History movedRoots up from fall 2016, when it was originally scheduled, to now so that it wouldn’t come out after the new Birth of a Nation, about the Nat Turner rebellion. I think those images of violence and of black people fighting back resonate so powerfully that they had to include more of that in 2016 than they did in 1977.
MM: That’s a pretty good theory. If I were the producer, I might have done that, too. Let’s get to about another moment from the finale, the scene when Tom, George, and a friend are running from the bushwhackers and cross the river to arrive at a Union military camp. The soldiers deny them entrance, so George falls right into his entertainer mode, preaching his son’s blacksmithing skills and hamming it up, and basically saves all their asses with his tomfoolery. That was nice.
MD: Yeah, loved that scene. Again, probably not realistic that he is going to change their minds in a minute, but it works. And I saw it as a nod to the power of a well-told story. One of the reasons people fell in love with Roots in the first place is that Alex Haley was an amazing storyteller. When Chicken George starts talking up Tom’s skills, how they come all the way from Mandinka culture, he was using his own skills to get them out of a jam.
The spy Nancy Holt (Anna Paquin) Steve Deitl/History
MM: As a master bullshitter! Okay, here’s a question: A white mom from our kids’ school told us she was in middle school when Roots first aired, and that white kids were getting beat up by black kids who were riled up by seeing how their ancestors were treated and I guess were looking for payback. Was this a thing, to your knowledge?
MD: There were two reports of violence post-Roots that I read about in newspapers from 1977. So I imagine there was some of that, but it probably wasn’t too widespread. It could be thatRoots became the occasion for fights in winter/spring of 1977 that were just normal school fights. I think the interesting thing about that story is that Roots really made people feel the history of slavery in ways that they hadn’t before. It is one thing to know that slavery existed, but when you start tying that history to specific people, when you see those people born, get older and have their own families, that changes how you see slavery. That was the real power of Roots.
MM: On the other side, was there evidence that it improved race relations?
MD: There was definitely a lot more talking about race and slavery. There are tons of stories of ordinary Americans talking about Roots at work, school, bars, churches, etc. That kind of mass communal viewing experience really isn’t possible anymore, but Roots definitely touched a nerve with people. “National conversations on race” is a Clinton-era phrase and is probably overused, but Roots would be one of the first national conversations on race. Now, one can dismiss all of that as just talk, but I’d rather have popular culture encouraging people to talk about our nation’s history than something else. And generally people are very uncomfortable talking about slavery or race. Roots provided a way for many more people to think and talk seriously about this history.
MM: The new series was well done, but all along I felt it could have benefited from a little more space to stretch out. Here the Civil War starts, and then, bang, it’s over! They could’ve used six episodes, or done it as a single-season TV drama with a dozen one-hour segments. Do you think they figured it would get more attention as a miniseries?
“It’s hard to juggle all of these characters over 100-plus years in only four episodes.”
MD: Part of the Roots brand is that it aired on eight straight nights, so I think they wanted to honor that. The original is uneven, and it does drag in parts, but I agree they could have stretched this one out a bit more. Especially since they added in new scenes and historical references; why not go even further with that? One place I noticed the quick pacing in this episode was with Matilda, Tom’s wife. We never really learn anything about her, but then we see her being raped and that’s what changes Tom’s mind to participate with the Union spies. It’s hard to juggle all of these characters over 100-plus years in only four episodes, but they were using the rape as a quick plot point without giving us any sense of who Matilda is—unlike how we got to know Kizzy over the prior episodes.
MM: What other moments stood out for you?
MD: The quick cut from the celebrations of freedom to the now-free black characters working the fields as sharecroppers, lamenting, “We’re out here same as before.” The series doesn’t do much with post-Civil War and Reconstruction, but I like the gesture to the fact that things didn’t change all of a sudden after the war ended. And I liked how they came back to the naming ceremony at the end. This was one of the iconic moments of the original book and series and I thought they did a nice job of making it fresh. That last line from Tom, something like, “That’s why I got to tell you this story, so I can be the kind of father I want to be.” That’s just great TV writing!
MM: I liked that they made it realistic. These are real, fallible people. So maybe early on, they hadn’t cared that much about their roots, and both Chicken George and Tom had forgotten the details of the ritual, so they kind of cobbled together their own.
“Kunta’s song is a nice reminder that there were a lot of contributions by black people, including slaves, that they weren’t credited for.”
MD: Yes, that sense that traditions are cobbled together and reinvented was threaded throughout. The song Kunta learned from his mother is now played by black string groups across the South, even if they don’t know where it came from. And how Kunta says that jumping the broom doesn’t actually come from Africa, but he’s willing to do it anyway if it matters to Belle. And how the “Behold the only thing greater than yourself” scene is different each time. George and Tom aren’t exactly sure how it goes, but they make it work.
MM: I thought the thing with Kunta’s song was a brilliant touch of continuity. Even the white soldiers were playing a version of it in their camp. It’s a nice reminder that there were a lot of contributions by black people, including slaves, that they weren’t credited for, but those contributions live on.
MD: All praise to Questlove on the music! It was understated but compelling throughout the series. What did you make of the final scene, when we see Lawrence Fishburne as Alex Haley, and having him walk through history meeting his ancestors?
MM: Mmm. That was a little bit cheesy. You sense the producers trying to tug at your heartstrings.
MD: I’ll be fascinated to see what viewers make of this, because I don’t think many people under 35 really know Alex Haley. They might be confused. I’ve obviously been thinking about Haley and Roots a lot over the past few years, so I liked the corniness. I also thought the final lines, “The truth can never be known, it can only be told in a story…I hope my story honors him,” was a good way to try to get past the fact-fiction debate over Roots and recognize that it was always intended to be a remarkable story.
Alex Haley (Laurence Fishburne) meets his ancestors. Steve Deitl/History
MM: Is Haley clear on that in his personal writings?
MD: Not really. He describes Roots as “faction”—a mix of fact and fiction. There are a few unpublished letters where he comes close to suggesting that his story was meant to be representative, not nonfiction. He got boxed in a bit by how he described the story initially as nonfiction, and then Doubleday and ABC emphasized that it’s a true story because they thought it would sell better. It is clear now that it was historical fiction, but I think Haley really wanted to believe the stories he heard in the Gambia about how Kunta Kinte was abducted on this specific date. I think he wanted to suspend disbelief, and I think that’s how a lot of readers and viewers approached Roots. Part of what people liked was that it was almost unbelievable that a black person could trace his ancestry back that far. That mystery was exciting, and I think it is a good thing to have that sense of mystery in some of our histories.
MM: So to sum up, just as a regular viewer, would you say the new series is an improvement over the old? Or is it unfair to ask a historian such a question?
MD: I can take off my historian hat. I found the new version more entertaining, and I thought the acting was much stronger. That probably has something to do with writing and production values, but I thought almost all the actors were excellent. What about you?
MM: It’s definitely better as entertainment, and more historically accurate in a lot of ways. The desire for those modern plot elements, the revenge bits, like I said, might detract from the wallop a bit. Then again, you don’t want it to be 1,000 percent depressing—you need small victories. So I thought it was a good reimagining. Whether I want my 11-year-old to watch it is something I’m still debating.
MD: Yes, I think they were successful. The original will always have the 100 million-plus viewers, but some of the best parts of the new series were when they took the story in new directions. A nice reinventing of traditions!