Here is a review from someone who actually watched all four parts of “Roots” (2016): me:
As slave films go, it is one of the better ones, even compared to the old “Roots” of 1977:
- It is less sugar-coated. (Notice the word “less”. It was still sugar-coated, just less so.)
- It is better at showing how terrible it was, so much so it was hard to watch at times.
- It is less Whitecentric, easily passing the Bechdel Test for Race. Whites were supporting characters, unlike in, say, “Amistad” (1997) or even “12 Years a Slave” (2013). If anything, the White characters were too flat, lacking moral complexity.
- It showed more of Africa (though not as much as the book).
Because of advances in film-making and scholarship since 1977, the remake was more true to life than the old “Roots” and better made.
But in some ways it was worse than the old “Roots”:
- It was shorter and felt rushed. To do “Roots” properly, you need 12 hours. The old Roots was 9.5 hours. The remake was only about 6 hours, not counting the ads.
- It was not as well acted. Kunta Kinte was good, but the 2016 Kizzy and Chicken George were cardboard compared to Leslie Uggams’s Kizzy and Ben Vereen’s Chicken George.
- It was less faithful to the book. In the book, Chicken George was not at the Fort Pillow Massacre. Nor was Kunta Kinte on his way to study at Timbuktu. Etc. It seems they were using the “Roots” name to stuff in as much Black History as possible. The book is already fictionalized enough as it is.
The beauty of “Roots”, the book by Alex Haley, is that it takes one family and follows it through history, a history that is undertold and mistold because many Blacks and many Whites find much of it painful (though not for the same reasons).
On the other hand, Haley’s family had it better than most: it was not split up as much, and, after they were freed, they had land of their own. But it was just those qualities that allowed Haley to become a writer in the first place and to follow his family line all the way back to Africa.
Slave films can be way better than books: they can reach more people and can affect them more deeply. For example, it is one thing to read about an injustice, quite another to see it play out before your eyes.
But Hollywood is controlled by Whites. The “Roots” remake did not escape that fact: David Wolper, who is White, was in charge. Only half the writers and half the directors were Black.
The remake was hardly an ode to White paternalism, but most Whites are presented as helpless rather than personally evil. They were not even the ones who sold Kunta Kinte into slavery (another thing they changed from the book). And slaves times were presented as Teflon History: the Bad Old Days that have little to do with the present.
– Abagond, 2016.
- slave films
- White paternalism
- “Africans sold their own people into slavery”
- Teflon History
- Bechdel Test for Race