Creators of the ‘Roots’ Reboot Get Real About the Need for a Remake (Video)
“King Kunta,” one of Kendrick Lamar’s stand-out tracks off To Pimp a Butterfly, bears a title that references what is perhaps the most iconic miniseries to ever air on American television. Kunta Kinte was the name of a central character in Roots, a visual requiem about slavery in the United States, and by adopting the moniker, Lamar helped to extend the series’ legacy into view of a younger audience may not have heard of Roots and certainly weren’t around to watch its original airing. Just as in 2015, Kunta Kinte is once again dominating many conversations in pop culture, thanks to a reboot of the series on the History Channel
Based on the 1976 book by Alex Haley entitled Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Roots and its contemporary reboot were recently profiled by Vice in a segment for its “Talks Film” series. Executive Producer Mark Wolper – the son of the show’s original producer – is featured, as is another film executive whose name will likely sound more familiar. Mario Van Peebles, adored by Heads everywhere for directing the iconic film New Jack City, joined the discussion in his role as a guest director as did his son Mandela, who stars in the remake. Van Peebles isn’t hesitant to comment on the gravity of 1977’s Roots‘ importance, saying it was “one of the first shows where I ever saw the American story told not through the eyes of the colonizer.”
Wolper makes it a point to separate the version he steered from its forefather, saying that he told himself “I’m not doing Roots again.” Rather, he wanted to approach the storyline in a way that would elicit the interest of today’s young Americans, including his own 16-year-old son, who he says “could not engage” with the original version. “I realized in that moment ‘wow, that’s why we gotta do Roots again.’ We gotta translate it for a whole new generation because they’re not gonna go back and watch the old one,” he says. Equally important, according to Wolper, was to remain historically accurate and true to the horrendous realities during what is arguably one of this country’s most shameful chapters. “[Accuracy] is one of the pedestals we built [the remake] on. Television audiences can smell when something is not authentic, and this Roots is a lot more authentic in a lot of ways than the original,” he argues. As an example, he puts forth the contrast behind one particularly poignant scene in the original version in which Kunta Kinte gets his name beaten out of him with 20 lashes, saying that Malachi Kirby (who plays Kinte in today’s version) gets 40. “Why is that important?,” Wolper asks rhetorically. “This man needed to hold on to his name as long as humanly possible and if he gives it up in two or three lashes, that’s not honest to the power of this character. That’s not honest to the lives that these people lived on these plantations.”
Interviewer Jaimie Sanchez asks the panel to comment on the timing of the show’s remake, particularly within the context of thins like mass incarceration, the Black Lives Matter movement, and having a Black president. Van Peebles responds by saying “as Americans, if we can’t take a hard look at how we got here, then it’s hard for us to move forward and step out of the existing trap paradigm to say ‘how do we get to a place where we are post-racial?’…Inside the perverse institution of slavery, they took folks from all over Africa and by taking away our language and taking away our music, they stripped us of our differences and so, in effect, they created this huge tribe of what would become Black America.” He goes on to say that he feels certain that if the forefathers knew that descendants of the slave population would one day become leaders, “they’d turn the ship back around,” and “I don’t think they realized that by [bringing slaves from Africa], they’d be creating a whole other tribe that would have this power and this quest and this thirst for knowing who we are…so, I think in many ways, when you watch Roots, you’ll see all these different levels of how America got to be America.”
Other compelling components of tackling such a project are addressed bluntly, such as Wolper’s Whiteness when recreating a Black story (“I was scared shitless,” he says), what it was like for Van Peebles to watch his son recreate such devastating history on screen, Mandela’s experiences sitting on real-life plantations while filming, the filmmakers’ thoughts on the inclusion of the “N” word throughout, and more.