TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. An eight-hour remake of the 1977 ABC miniseries "Roots" will be shown over four nights starting on Memorial Day. It will be presented simultaneously on the A&E, Lifetime and History cable networks. Our TV critic David Bianculli reviewed the original miniseries when it premiered. Now he has a review of the new one.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The original "Roots" miniseries, based on the 1976 Alex Haley novel tracing his own family tree from African tribal life to American slavery and freedom, was a phenomenon. ABC showed it over consecutive nights in January 1977 not because it was expected to earn huge ratings but because network executives were afraid it wouldn't.
So they crammed the entire miniseries into an eight-day primetime marathon, which aired, by coincidence, during a massive winter storm that snowed in much of the Northeast. "Roots" was TV's original binge viewing experience and kept drawing more viewers every night. Its finale, still one of the most-viewed scripted programs in TV history, was seen by more than 100 million people.
It launched a new national dialogue about race and racism and slavery and genealogy and launched or heightened the careers of several black actors, including LeVar Burton, John Amos, Leslie Uggams, Louis Gossett Jr. and Ben Vereen. So why bother with a remake? After all, the TV universe is so fragmented these days, there's no way a remake of "Roots" is going to even approach the viewing figures for the original miniseries - won't happen.
It's not even on broadcast TV. But as I see it, there are three primary reasons to remake "Roots," and they're all good reasons. One is because the original drama, while very emotional and effective in some scenes, was overdrawn and oversimplified in others. Another is because very few young people are likely to sample the original "Roots" while a new version will reintroduce the story and its themes to a new century of TV viewers.
And the third most important reason is that we as a country still need to confront, discuss and try to understand our complicated racial history. So when I started previewing this new "Roots," I hoped it would be smart enough, fresh enough and involving enough to justify its existence as a lengthy, costly TV remake.
And from the very start, with Laurence Fishburne providing the voice of author Alex Haley, it was.
(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. The two most important days in a man's life are the day he is born and the day that he understands why.
BIANCULLI: This new version, while not as long as the original, spends more time on specific incidents and characters and adds real-life battles and events not dramatized in the original miniseries. Alex Haley's story this time is written by four scriptwriters. And each episode is directed by a different well-known director - Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter, Philip Noyce and Bruce Beresford.
Music plays a very important part throughout. And the music supervisor is Questlove from a band he long ago named The Roots. And one of the executive producers of this new "Roots" is the star of the old one, LeVar Burton. If you remember the original version of "Roots," which spawned many sequels, the same colorful and indelible characters make their mark this time around.
Fiddler, once played by a charming Lou Gossett, is now played by Forest Whitaker. Chicken George, played in 1977 by Ben Vereen, is now played by Rege-Jean Page. The spirited Kizzy, once played by Leslie Uggams, is now played by Anika Noni Rose.
And where the part of Kunta Kinte once was played by two actors, LeVar Burton as a boy and John Amos as a man, this time, Malachi Kirby plays him throughout with a stubborn and proud streak that's evident even in his first conversation with Fiddler, played by Forest Whitaker, who's explaining the ways of his new slave life.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROOTS")
FOREST WHITAKER: (As Fiddler) You understand me, Toby?
MALACHI KIRBY: (As Kunta Kinte) Kunta Kinte.
WHITAKER: (As Fiddler) No, no, listen to me. Master's wife done named you Toby.
KIRBY: (As Kunta Kinte) Kunta Kinte (foreign language spoken) Kinte. (Foreign language spoken).
WHITAKER: (As Fiddler) I ain't got time to...
KIRBY: (As Kunta Kinte) (Foreign language spoken).
WHITAKER: (As Fiddler) Toby, Toby, Toby, Toby, Toby, Toby, Toby. You're going to be Toby now. And you're going to be Toby forever. And I don't care nothing about your African ways. You're going to work hard, and you're going to cause no trouble. You hear me, Toby?
KIRBY: (As Kunta Kinte) Kunta Kinte.
BIANCULLI: That leads very soon to an updated version of the most memorable scene from the original "Roots" when Kunta Kinte's new overseer flogs him repeatedly and mercilessly while demanding him to accept and repeat his slave name of Toby. This new "Roots" works its way through stories along several generations.
It still leaves room, as did the original, for a sequel. But the central "Roots" story remains potent enough and even more so in this new telling. Characters are given more time, and the actors do wonders with their scenes, especially Kirby as Kunta Kinte, Rose as Kizzy, and Page as Chicken George.
You'll feel for them and their journeys. This new "Roots" is a TV miniseries that not only should be seen, but like the original, it definitely deserves to be talked about.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with comic Marc Maron and Rabbi Susan Silverman, older sister of comic Sarah Silverman, check out our podcast. You'll find those and many other interviews.
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