A Modern 'Roots' For An American Society Still 'Based On The Color Line' The remake of the seminal TV miniseries begins on the History channel this week. Co-producer LeVar Burton says he recognized an opportunity to retell the story "to and for a new generation."
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A Modern 'Roots' For An American Society Still 'Based On The Color Line'

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A Modern 'Roots' For An American Society Still 'Based On The Color Line'

A Modern 'Roots' For An American Society Still 'Based On The Color Line'

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The history Channel is going back to "Roots." That's the name of a famous miniseries from the 1970s which focused the nation's attention on the horrors of slavery. Over the next four nights, the History Channel will air a new version of "Roots." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says this program walks a fine line between recalling classic TV and reinventing a 40-year-old epic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROOTS")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Alex Haley) This is how I heard about the boy, Kunta Kinte. And this is how I'll tell you the story.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Laurence Fishburne's mesmerizing narration as author Alex Haley in this new "Roots" pulls viewers in immediately. But it also kind of begs the question - why? Why do a new version of "Roots"?

LEVAR BURTON: I heard today that fully 50 percent of the population of the United States that is alive now was not alive in 1977, seven, when the original "Roots" aired.

DEGGANS: That's LeVar Burton. He starred as Haley's ancestor, Kunta Kinte, in the original version of "Roots" and serves as co-executive producer of the new version.

BURTON: I'll tell you, I'm not a big fan of remakes. I didn't think this would ever happen - you know, retelling this story. And I didn't necessarily believe that it should happen, but I recognized immediately that there was an opportunity here - one that I had not seen - to retell this story to and for a new generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROOTS")

FISHBURNE: (As Alex Haley) There was once a rich and sophisticated city named Juffure in a Mandinka kingdom in West Africa. It was located on the banks of the Kamby Bolongo, the great river of the Gambia.

DEGGANS: Like the original, this new "Roots" portrays the journey of Haley's ancestors from life in Africa to slavery in America. And it also reimagines some of the most iconic moments in TV history. Here's a scene from the new series, where Haley's ancestor, Kunta Kinte, is given his name by his father as a baby and held up to the stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROOTS")

BABS OLUSANMOKUN: (As Omoro Kinte, foreign language spoken).

Behold Kunta Kinte, the only thing that is greater than you.

MALACHI KIRBY: You know what? I had heard of Kunta Kinte before I heard of "Roots."

DEGGANS: That's Malachi Kirby, who plays the new Kunta Kinte. He grew up in London as the grandson of Jamaican immigrants.

KIRBY: There were kids that would call me Kunta Kinte if ever my hair was particularly rough that day or I was dressed scruffy. It was a negative attribute from my perspective at the time to be called Kunta Kinte or to be associated with being African.

DEGGANS: Kirby was in his 20s when he actually saw "Roots," which helped him see Africa in a more positive way. Burton says changing these kind of perspectives is the point of both versions of "Roots."

BURTON: You know, the original "Roots" 40 years ago, it had the power to change the way this nation, America, views slavery. After "Roots," it became impossible to think of the institution of slavery without considering, without contemplating the human cost. "Roots" put a face on the institution of slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: The original "Roots" was an ambitious project. Based on Alex Haley's 1976 novel, "Roots: The Saga Of An American Family," the miniseries drew more than a hundred million viewers back in 1977 and won nine Emmy awards. It recounted how Haley's ancestor Kunta Kinte was brought to America as a slave and birthed a family who would eventually be free. The miniseries was revolutionary in presenting that journey as an American story, featuring black stars such as Leslie Uggams, John Amos and Cicely Tyson. Producer David Wolper's masterstroke was casting beloved white TV actors from "The Brady Bunch" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as slave owners and overseers. Here, Ed Asner is a ship's captain carrying slaves for the first time. And Ralph Waite, star of "The Waltons," is his experienced slave overseer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROOTS")

EDWARD ASNER: (As Captain Thomas Davies) What are they like, the blacks?

RALPH WAITE: (As Slater) Just a different kind of breed, sir - you know, like a man would breed a dog for hunting and breed another sort of dog for his wife and children to play with.

DEGGANS: Burton confirms executive producer Wolper did this to bring white audiences into the show. When it was time to cast the remake, LeVar Burton worked hard to find the new Kunta Kinte. He and his fellow producers searched for six months to find Malachi Kirby, a veteran of British TV shows like "Doctor Who" and "EastEnders." Once production started, Kirby said Burton did not offer much direct advice. Instead, the "Roots" veteran said something enigmatic just before they re-created the climactic scene where Kunta Kinte is beaten by an overseer with a nail-studded whip until he calls himself by his slave name, Toby.

KIRBY: He told me that he was a mighty child, and I am a mighty man.

DEGGANS: Kirby thought he was talking about their difference in experience. Kunta Kinte was LeVar Burton's first professional audition and first real acting job. Malachi Kirby had been acting for eight years. But then, the scene began.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROOTS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Your name is Toby. Now tell me your name.

KIRBY: (As Kunta Kinte) I'm Kunta Kinte.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's not your name. Toby's your name.

KIRBY: (As Kunta Kinte) Kunta Kinte.

KIRBY: And I remembered these words that LeVar had shared with me - I am a mighty man - and it caused me to resist. He goes on for much longer than, I believe, in the original.

BURTON: Twenty lashes longer. In the original, it's 10 lashes that Kunta receives. It is a fully thirty lashes in this version.

DEGGANS: Those aren't the only differences. The black people in this modern "Roots" resist more and fight harder against being victimized. The stories move faster and focus more on Haley's family. We don't see white slavers agonizing over their decisions. The original "Roots" and author Alex Haley have faced controversy over the years. Haley, who died in 1992, settled a lawsuit by an author who accused him of plagiarizing parts of "Roots." Burton says new scholarship inspired by "Roots'" success helped them to revise the story.

BURTON: So we know now that the Mandinka were horse warriors. Alex didn't know that. We know that Juffure was a major center of commerce. When Alex encountered Juffure in the early '70s, it was a sleepy little burg of a village. This new historical information is now a part of Kunta's origin story.

DEGGANS: Other recent films and TV shows have told slave slave stories for today's generations, including the WGN America series "Underground" and the Oscar-winning film "12 Years A Slave." Burton says these stories are important, though he understands why some black people would find them tough to watch.

BURTON: Black people still live in America. And America is still a society that is based on the color line, OK? I'm really hoping that this time around, we can have that conversation with each other on both sides of the color line and leave behind the shame.

DEGGANS: But accomplishing that conversation without disappointing fans of the original "Roots" just might be the biggest challenge this new miniseries faces. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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