New Roots for the Nation

Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in Roots (A&E)
TV’s rebooted slavery epic aids the new status quo.

The new $50 million remake of the television mini-series Roots can readily be avoided by viewers, but it’s not so easy to dismiss this latest instance of political and social coercion based on race manipulation. The 1977 Roots mini-series (produced by documentary specialist David L. Wolper) was a genuine cultural event (surpassing Robert Altman’s 1975 Nashville as the era’s great American movie epic), which made the shadowy history of American slavery an urgent social topic. Roots attracted unprecedented numbers of viewers and kick-started the genealogical movement of investigative memoirs, family-history websites, and TV shows that played no small part in re-popularizing the political slogan “We are a nation of immigrants.”

That sentimental slogan might be inherently divisive (because of its implicit overlooking of America’s native peoples), but the slogan also demonstrates the way Roots’ shocking disclosures about the cruelties of America’s past were subject to revision. The discomforting history of man’s inhumanity to man, a possible model for understanding contemporary rancor and competition, is now turned to the advantage of modern political and cultural powerbrokers.

In the new millennial version of Roots (an eight-hour mini-series being broadcast over four nights on the A+E, History, and Lifetime channels), the African Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), ensnared in tribal opposition, is taken from his ancestral home and its edifying traditions. He endures the nightmare of the Middle Passage and is caught in the further terrors of enslavement in the United States. Each stage of this journey presents dehumanization as the eternal African-American experience, but, unlike the 1977 version, the new Roots lacks the emphasis on transforming brutalization (Kinte forced to accept the slave name “Toby”) into ethical perseverance. This version is less “hokey” than the original, yet it is also less powerful (nothing matches Madge Sinclair and Leslie Uggams’s unforgettable mother and child separation scene).

This new Roots is more aggressively, repulsively violent than the original, and it is also, comparatively, shallow. Yet it is crucial to understand that this shallowness isn’t so much an “art” issue. (The well-photographed black faces in the African scenes show the aesthetic impact of The Color Purple, Beloved, and Do the Right Thing.) These showrunners are highly aware of their socially conscious intent, but the show’s inconsequence reflects a timely political problem.

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LeVar Burton in the original “Roots”

This Roots reboot joins the current vogue of race-themed films such as Precious, The Help, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Selma, and Straight Outta Compton (with more on the way) — a revanchist movement that mogul Harvey Weinstein attributed to “the Obama Effect.”

Roots’ personal saga is significantly different from President Obama’s own heritage narrative. Roots began with writer Alex Haley’s popular book-length account of his family’s history, dating back to his ancestors’ abduction from Africa into the slavery institution that was the basis for much of industry and social organization in the burgeoning United States. Yet Obama’s political ascendency — part of a softening of black American experience into the celebration of immigrant legacy — has replaced the Roots narrative, offering a more palatable figure than Kunta Kinte, as if to ameliorate the harrowing historical truth. Remaking Roots for the Obama era is “the Obama Effect” put “in effect,” as rappers used to say.

It is fascinating that Los Angeles–based rapper Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus) issued a call to resist the new Roots. “I’m sick of this s—! How the f— are they going to put Roots on, on Memorial Day? They going to just keep beating that s— into our heads about how they did us, huh!”

Despite Snoop Dogg’s vulgarity (he could as well have called it “de trop”), there’s more than street sense in his objection to indulging “the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago.” Snoop Dogg expresses the resistance many black Americans have shown to the depiction of slavery in such high-profile mainstream films as Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and Jonathan Demme’s Beloved (which sought both political remedy and spiritual transcendence). The black pop audience has shown little taste for the sadism that is favored by Hollywood’s “Obama Effect.”

Snoop Dogg’s resistance, based on the common-sense, feel-good immediacy of hip-hop, might be called “grassroots,” whereas the “Obama Effect” represents realpolitik, a nebulous party line that uses the repetition of race-based brutality — the on-going, perverse romanticizing of slavery — to substantiate certain political agendas. These agendas, apparent in the reboot’s production and promotion, make Roots an infuriating benchmark in Obama-era race rhetoric.

Since 1977, the tone of social and cultural discourse has changed. It’s also arguable that since the 2008 election, the discourse is no longer convivial or collegial. A political candidate in Altman’s Nashville ran on the ironic slogan “New Roots for the Nation,” which fits this new Roots. It reflects social and cultural division rooted in official partisan and class advantages. Snoop Dogg feels this without detailing it, but it’s become apparent in this new super-production.

On May 17, Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s closest adviser, hosted a day-long event at the White House celebrating the new series. Nancy Dubuc, president and CEO of A+E Networks, explained her enthusiasm for the program by saying she expected it to give her corporation high ratings and industry awards. She candidly told The Hollywood Reporter: “We want it — we want not only the nominations, we want to take the whole kit and caboodle home.” The enthusiasm of both Jarrett and Dubuc recalls the Obama-era zeal that was apparent when 12 Years a Slave — perhaps the ultimate slavery-as-horror-show movie — was endorsed by the Academy Awards.

Roots wasn’t remade to update awareness of contemporary racial privation but to use slavery as a bulwark for sustaining the status quo.

How did the atrocities of slavery become a means of celebrating culture-industry piety as well as political power? Roots wasn’t remade to update awareness of contemporary racial privation but to use slavery as a bulwark for sustaining the status quo. That’s what goes unsaid when A+E officials and various race-hustlers like the Rev. Al Sharpton endorse the series, claiming it will enlighten a new generation that is ignorant of the history of slavery. Anyone who accepts that alibi automatically accepts the failures of our education system and the culture industry.

A Hollywood trade paper went with the unfounded assumption that “the brutal history of slavery [tends] to be woefully underplayed in textbooks (to say nothing of Hollywood movies and TV shows).” Even worse, a new Roots goes along with a general disregard for cultural history. It neglects such important films on the subject of slavery as Band of Angels (1957), Way Down South (1939), Slaves (1969), Skin Game (1971), Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1992), and the extraordinary Mandingo (1975). Mandingo was a key artifact of Civil Rights Era sophistication. Director Richard Fleischer and Detroit-born writer Norman Wexler, who also wrote Joe, Serpico, and Saturday Night Fever, created indelible, near-satiric scenes of American racial history with cues to then-recent rebel impulses (as in the famous lynching speech of actor Ji-Tu Cumbuka).

#related#Knowing this cultural history makes a Roots remake unnecessary. Ignorance of this history plays into the cultural intimidation of the wrongly educated Black Lives Matter campaign. (Ignorance also caused Kerry Washington at the NAACP awards to thank sadist Quentin Tarantino for “telling our story” in Django Unchained.) It is another patronizing Hollywood delusion to credit Black Lives Matter, not the Obama Effect, for this remake. If blacks represent 40 million out of 296.8 million viewers (according to Nielsen), then there has to be another motivation than simply popular appeal.

Literary scholar Leslie Fiedler wrote the only serious consideration of the 1977 version of Roots in his 1979 pamphlet The Inadvertent Epic (which linked Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Roots). One can seriously consider President Obama as the inadvertent auteur of this new production, in which the unsettling contrast between the brutal treatment of blacks and their persistent humanity fails to reflect — or instruct — our awareness of the still desperate conditions of American life for many. Americans could measure their lives by the first Roots; this time their assent is merely what the president has otherwise derided in his opponents as “the okey-doke.” This mini-series exposes the roots of our status quo.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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