Roots (2016)

“They can put the chains on your body; never let them put the chains on your mind”

The best show on TV at the moment is hidden away on BBC Four.

Poignant, heart-wrenching and urgent: critically acclaimed mini-series Roots is airing on BBC Four on Wednesdays at 9pm, and the trailer shows just why you should (almost) immediately head over to BBC iPlayer to catch-up.

The original series of Roots, a history of American slavery told through the lineage of one family, was a phenomenon when it was aired in the United States in 1977. The ABC network, fearful of audience indifference, was overwhelmed by its success, with 85% of all houses with TVs tuned in. An estimated 100 million Americans watched the series finale, which remains the second-highest-rated episode for any US television drama.

The $50m remake, originally commissioned by the History Channel, was broadcast to great critical acclaim in the United States last May, just as a presidential candidate was revelling in the support of the Ku Klux Klan and encouraging the abuse of black protesters at his rallies. Now that he has somehow found himself in the White House and the vitriolic nationalists hold sway, Roots is arguably even more vital as a tool with which Americans might take stock of the racism that lies ingrained in their country’s psyche.

Picked up by BBC Four in the UK, the epic Emmy-nominated saga begins in eighteenth-century West Africa with a young and proud Kunta Kinte training to become a Mandinka warrior in Juffure, The Gambia. Captured and enslaved in his homeland by a rival tribe, Kunta is trafficked across the Atlantic in harrowing conditions, leading a failed rebellion against the English-speaking ship crew en route. Upon arrival in colonial America, he is sold to a Virginian tobacco magnate to be deployed on a plantation. Enslaved but not a slave, Kunta’s spirit is relentlessly challenged and his body brutally degraded. Yet, he resiliently clings to his identity, resisting at the whipping post the imposed slave name of Toby.

Roots has an epic scope as an ambitious tetralogy of two-hour dramas, spanning multiple generations, and tracing a historical portrait of the African American experience from slavery to reconstruction by recounting the journey of one family and their will to survive, endure and ultimately continue their legacy despite unbearable hardship and inhumanity. Throughout the series, the family is faced with colossal suffering, injustice and adversity while bearing witness and contributing to notable events in U.S. history, including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, slave uprisings and eventual emancipation. The legacy of Kunta Kinte and his family is one that echoes through the history of millions of Americans of African descent, and it reveals powerful truths about the universal resilience of the human spirit.

The stellar casting mixes established stars of screens big and small including Forest Whitaker (Last King of Scotland, Arrival), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Mystic River), Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors, Vikings), with upcoming talents including Rege-Jean Page (Waterloo Road), and Malachi Kirby (Eastenders), who stars in the iconic role of Kunta Kinte. Kirby has a magnetic presence as the headstrong Mandinka warrior, brilliantly negotiating Kunta’s transition from naïve, zealous recruit to stern, indomitable rebel. When Kinte arrives in Virginia he is met by Fiddler, played by Oscar-winner Forest Whittaker. Fiddler’s transformation from hopeless and submissive plaything of his owner’s family to protector and confidant of Kinte is assured and spirited in the hands of Whittaker. Special mention must also go to Tony Curran (Gladiator, The Adventures of Tintin) for his unnerving performance as malignant plantation overseer, Connolly. There are in fact strong performances across the board, instilling confidence in every major character and complicity in their hope.

But it is the unwavering commitment to realism which makes the show so important. It moves with blistering pace, often regretfully. It is angry and beautiful, shameful and shaming, bloody and viciously vital to any of our histories. For the viewers, and for the actors involved, a knowledge of that history only heightens the gruelling visceral reaction to the inhumanity and injustice portrayed in this nuanced and poetic retelling of this most shameful history. Although the unrelenting tribulations of the family will provoke audible winces and groans, there is no sadism for its own sake, and the lush production values occasionally serve to dilute the horror that unfolds. Nevertheless, even the most stylised depictions of brandings, lashings and beatings never fail to have an impact, and scenes of hangings, forced amputations and rape prove immensely distressing to watch.

Roots brings the dark truth of America’s eighteenth-century rise into the light far more powerfully than any textbook, yet far fewer viewers will spend eight hours of their lives immersed in this saga than did almost 40 years ago. Diminishing television audiences aside, the potential spectatorship of such powerful and moving drama has been dearly depleted by its curious consignment to the relative obscurity of BBC Four.

While there’s not a hope in hell that this would be considered essential viewing in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the rest of the world should sit up and take notice of such raw and unflinching drama. This is a powerful retelling of a harrowing story that is as resonant today as it undoubtedly was when the original series first aired nearly 40 years ago. Its sheer force and urgency mean it deserves to impact upon a new generation of viewers.

Catch Episode 1 of Roots on BBC iPlayer in the UK until Friday 10th March.


Slow Train Through Africa

Africa. A continent roughly the size of the United States, China, India, and much of Europe combined. A continent of breathtaking natural beauty, unparalleled human history, and extraordinary cultural diversity, traversed eponymously by Griff Rhys Jones on slow trains. The myriad wonders of this vast continent shoehorned into just five one-hour episodes.

Slow Train Through Africa, which covers an astonishing 11,000 kilometres through Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, opens with the bland, if indisputable line: “Africa — there’s nowhere else quite like it.”

An archetypical entertaining documentary on this most vast of continents, Rhys Jones checks in at the Sahara, goes on safari, attends a Maasai ceremony, and gazes at the Victoria Falls. Fulfilling his travelogue series responsibility of partaking in local practices, he amusingly softens leather by treading on it in a vat of pigeon droppings, experiments with cutting emeralds, and trains with a pair of Kenyan distance runners.

Yet, such novelty felt distinctly peripheral. The most valuable parts of the series were his unscripted interactions with ordinary people, such as his solidarity with a picket of singing rail workers, his wild popularity having inadvertently purchased a barrel of the local liquor, and his self-deprecating humility when repeatedly duped by street traders.

The whole overview is a look at ordinary people living and working in Africa. Ninety per cent of the stories that come out of Africa are about disease, poverty and war, but the majority of the population of Africa gets on with their lives and don’t encounter the brutal end of this. People were genuinely pleased to hear I wasn’t there making a film about poverty.” – Griff Rhys Jones.

Authentically charming and witty, Rhys Jones is an entertaining presenter, and he marshals professionally the formulaic enterprise of the genre. Moreover, though, the series succeeds in its aim of presenting an Africa rarely seen in the shock-horror news reports. Instead, his is a glimpse into Africa that ought to challenge the still prevalent, stereotyped view of a continent constantly assailed by disease, poverty and war.

Admittedly, however, a cosy celebrity travelogue is hardly the forum for incisive political analysis, and so, despite the best efforts of Rhys Jones thoughtfully authored script, Slow Train Through Africa unfortunately develops into yet one more example of the insidiously nostalgic throwback to the history of European colonialism. The underlying story is of the colonials who brought the railways to many parts of Africa, and as Rhys Jones himself puts it, “it is [the story of] how the modern world arrived in Africa, usually to exploit bits of it.”

As Rhys Jones explains, “there’s a history overlying the railway, which is the history of the struggle for Africa. You can’t avoid that.” The problem, however, is in its presentation of that struggle. It absolves the institution of colonialism of blame, instead apportioning the responsibility onto greedy colonists. The British and French empires, foremost colonists of Africa, are portrayed as philanthropic benefactors, credited with instigating the development of Africa through, for example, the construction of railways. Yet, it was, of course, the systemic cruelty of colonialism, and slave-powered mercantilism before that, which, at state level, harboured the moral justification for individual wickedness.

Meanwhile, Rhys Jones deems reprehensible the motives of the individual colonist when discussing the origins of Namibia and Zambia’s railroads, constructed to transport plundered minerals rather than passengers. Even then, however, the criticism is one based upon economic greed, rather than institutional white supremacy. It paints a condemnatory picture of the rapacious capitalist exploiting African labour to extract vast mineral wealth, yet it is suspiciously quiet on the realities of slave labour, and on the racial superiority propagated by the colonial beneficiaries of such enterprises.

At times, Rhys Jones even loses himself eulogising over the ambition of colonial pioneer Cecil Rhodes to connect Cairo and Cape Town by rail. After such misty-eyed admiration, it then appears disingenuous when he forces himself to question the legacy of Rhodes and his peers, though even then remaining silent on their white supremacist views. The inference, then, is that the atrocities with which they are associated were the result of regrettable character flaws in otherwise great men.

That is not to say that greed was not a factor, but to frame the narrative of colonialism in such a way overlooks the institutionalised cruelty of imperial rule. It absolves the culpability of nations so intent on plundering the wealth of a continent that they wilfully manipulated the history of Africa, inventing the concept of race and racial superiority in order to justify the enslavement and slaughter of a native population.

Is it any wonder, then, with such propagandistic representations of our colonial history so widespread, that a recent poll found that 59% of Brits believe that the British Empire is something to be proud of? Particularly prevalent since the Brexiteers promise of “taking our country back”, this imperial pomp has been diagnosed by academic Paul Gilroy as a necessary symptom of “postcolonial melancholia”, a yearning for a time when Britain was a great leader in the world.

One key feature of “postcolonial melancholia” is the minimising of the brutal history of Britain’s ruling of the waves, namely its subjugation of a third of the world’s population through empire, colonialism, and slavery. Lest we forget: far from a benevolent saviour, the British empire was based on exploitation, murder and devastation. Hundreds of millions of people died as a result of Britain’s vicious regime. Indeed, the empire only collapsed after rebellions and revolutions by those oppressed.

Another key feature in this nostalgic adulation of empire is the celebration of what Winston Churchill called “its glories and all the services it rendered to mankind”. Almost half of survey respondents felt that the former colonies “were better off” as a result of colonisation. The propagation of such false legacies as civilisational advancement cajoles a population into believing that the blood-stained tyranny of empire was humane and benign. It denies and distorts the truth of imperial rule rather than acknowledging the creation of political and economic systems that impoverished Africa to enrich Europe.

We celebrate the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, for example, regardless of the truth that the act in no way ended slavery. We deify the abolitionist William Wilberforce, regardless of the truth that the trade ended mostly due to economic concerns, and in pragmatic response to rebellion. We self-congratulate a moral awakening, regardless of the truth that compensation was paid to slave owners, while the formerly enslaved received nothing but an effective return to slavery through apprenticeships and colonialism. We focus on the achievement of abolition, ignoring the preceding 245 years during which Britain was the foremost slave trading nation in Europe, enslaving and trafficking 3.4 million Africans.

Yet the persistence of such terrifying public opinion is an indictment of the failure of our school system to provide even a cursory history of empire. Children go from Henry VIII to the Nazis, omitting that period in between when Britain ruled over the greatest empire ever known, the legacy of which still plays a crucial role in the modern world. Its profits fuelled the industrial revolution, and, by extension, the ascension of Britain to global power status. The very notion of “Great” Britain, and the wealth in which it basks to this day, for example, is intimately tied to slave labour, to which conservative estimates link between 10% and 20% of current GDP. Meanwhile, the devastation of the colonised goes some way to explaining the poverty and conflict in many parts of the world today, including troubled parts of Africa as explored by Griff Rhys Jones.

In truth, Slow Train Through Africa probably goes further in its condemnation of colonial powers than most other mainstream productions have on the subject. It is perhaps this which makes its hesitant condemnation all the more frustrating, particularly given that for most people, this is their greatest exposure to our imperial past.

When Rudyard Kipling retired, he wrote to Cecil Rhodes: “England is a stuffy little place, mentally, morally and physically”. Perhaps it remains so now, only more so, without an empire attached. Maybe that very littleness is why there’s a certain nostalgic folie de grandeur. Perhaps a recognition of the horrific brutality at the dark heart of empire would shake the nation out of its postcolonial melancholia. Perhaps we reminisce about the days of empire, and pine for Britain to be great again, because to do so avoids any uncomfortable reckoning with its terrible colonial legacy.

Netflix’s Marco Polo

Genre television typically attracts a certain built-in audience which, regardless of the plot and cast, gleefully accepts the latest regurgitation of a familiar set of tropes and signifiers. Historical dramas are popular genre television, with shows like OutlanderVikings, and, of course, Game of Thrones currently enjoying critical and commercial success. Netflix wanted a piece of the action, and on paper, Marco Polo meets all of the requisite criteria for becoming a genre hit: a Hollywood budget, an immense cast, and of course, Netflix’s distinct advantage, the ability to binge watch as the viewer pleases.

Marco Polo is a fictionalised historical drama that follows the Venetian explorer of the same name through his adventures in 13th-century China following his capture by Kublai Khan. Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) must learn to navigate through the politics and culture of life in the court of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), grandson of Genghis Khan, who is in the midst of his quest to become emperor of the world and sees Marco as a valuable tool in this conquest.mp_02_00736r

Marco Polo is at times a feast for the eyes. The production values are breathtaking on a show that boasted a budget reportedly outstripped only by the show to which it owes its inspiration, HBO’s Game of Thrones. A sprawling multi-ethnic cast, stunning on-location shots in Malaysia and Kazakhstan, impressive action and meticulous costuming, Marco Polo looks to have spent its $90 million wisely. The camerawork and cinematography are undeniably gorgeous, but, sumptuous as the production is, the creative vision its peddling is emotionally empty. The show is instead a jumble of prestige tropes assembled in such a way that the series features moments of surprising brilliance that abut moments of astonishing daftness. It is devoid of narrative passion, and it lacks the raw ferocity and charisma of its counterpart Game of Thrones, not to mention its wealth of engaging characters.

Though the sensual and opulent visuals of Marco Polo go some way towards neutralising the overripe dialogue and undernourished performances, they cannot compensate for Richelmy’s unforgivable lack of screen presence. Marco’s dialogues are ridden with clichés and faux wisdom, so much so that it resembles a horoscope read aloud. It’s vague, and comes with an oriental tinge that borders on racist. Blame it on the writing or the vastly more powerful performances of Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan and Tom Wu as Hundred Eyes, but the lifeless Richelmy is not so much a protagonist as he is an afterthought, often serving only as an impressively dressed conduit into this ancient and exotic world. Of course, this may well be intentional given that Marco Polo himself was only as fascinating as the stories he told, principally of the Chinese Emperor, grandson to Genghis Khan, to whom his adventure allows us access.

redeye-lorenzo-richelmy-marco-polo-netflix-20141210Nevertheless, Polo’s tenure under Kublai Khan is dreadfully dull, and the show haphazardly hops from one set piece to the next in its disjointed narrative, resulting in a spasmodic rhythm that is not conducive to a settled viewing, let alone a binge. Alternately tedious and salacious, mixing dull political manoeuvring with gratuitous sex scenes and cartoonish violence, the production occasionally jolts to life with the energy of a sudden brawl or assassination attempt, but it soon settles back into a state of mildly agitated, interwoven intrigue. Most baffling is the uneven balancing of these contrasts as the series lurches between modes without warning. Too often, then, genre works tend to skate by on aesthetic alone, and Marco Polo may well be one of those works.

At times, though, Marco Polo offers nuanced character drama, set in a world rarely brought to the Western screen: the empire of Kublai Khan, who ruled over a fifth of the world, and the Chinese Song dynasty, its perennial rival. While Marco Polo deserves credit for its positive presentation of Kublai Khan – the Mongol Khan assimilated in China wherein he founded its Yuan Dynasty – and of the Mongol story more generally, the show then proceeds to flout historical accuracy and undermine its own characters to play up orgies in the Khan’s harem and threesomes in his bedchamber. Historically accurate when it wants to be, the series is sloppy and intended to draw international attention, not plaudits. Indeed, others have proved capable of presenting women less dismissively.

Moreover, Marco Polo  does little to justify the continued prevalence of the tiresome story of the white man visiting the “exotic” Orient. Though the mostly Asian actors are for the most part able to maintain the bare threads of the story, it is a disservice to the incomparable source materials to fall into such well-charted pitfalls of the storytelling about other cultures. In the hands of even a somewhat sensitive Western production, Marco Polo is uncomfortable to watch, a window into a culture that isn’t the West’s to adapt, and into which the maximum number of tropes have been awkwardly crammed. Yet, the most perplexing thing about Marco Polo is that the show is about the white male interloper to the Mongol Empire who somehow becomes the saviour of the Mongols, bringing the trebuchet to its armies hitherto stymied by the city walls of Xiangyang. Viewers accustomed to such heroic intervention from Westerners should note that the ingenious Mongols had already developed ballistic siege weapons sufficiently ruinous as to subdue every hostile city from Hungary in the West to Korea in the East. The Mongols ruled the largest contiguous empire in history – and they needed no help from Marco Polo to do so.

Marco Polo also feels unserious despite its roots in actual events. Its semi-historical basis should lend gravitas, but such is the dramatisation of Polo’s adventures that the show is left feeling far from grounded. In one remarkable sequence, a condemned Marco preaches to Kublai Khan the great strength and irrepressible resistance of Western Europe, so much so that he appears to convince the Great Khan to abandon his ambitious plans to conquer as far West as the Vatican. Yet, students of the history of the Mongol Empire will remark upon the great successes of the agile Mongol Horde against the cumbersome European knights it rendered obsolete, and they will also know that the Mongols conquest of Middle Ages Europe was in fact aborted due to the paling of the West’s meagre potential loot against that available in the vastly more prosperous East. Narrative liberties with historical events are, of course, fair game, but such sequences are superfluous given that the immensely rich source material is already attractively dramatic far beyond the capacity of the modern scriptwriter.marco-polo-benedict-wong-lorenzo-richelmy-slice

Still, there remains the faintest glimmer of potential. The imposing Benedict Wong carries a shrewd, menacing presence as Khan, creating unexpected depth within a character who, as written, could easily come off as a despotic caricature. It’s such a shame that the writers seem to imagine his character as some exaggerated warrior version of Jabba the Hutt. As is often the case with such population-dense epics, his performance shows a spark of promise that demands more time than is available, as do those of Uli Latukefu, who plays one of Khan’s sons, and Joan Chen, who plays Khan’s wife.

So replete is Marco Polo with medieval warfare, lopped-off heads, gratuitous nudity, and persnickety period detail, that it pleads longingly to be compared with HBO’s Game of Thrones, a far superior show by almost every measure. Clearly what Netflix hopes you will see is extravagant, prestige entertainment along the lines of such a fantasy epic but, in truth, Marco Polo is closer to one of those cheesy, international adventure movies. There is the potential, though – given some promising early performances, the large budget and the uniquely fascinating source material – for a series that, even if it isn’t thematically deep, could yet be salvaged into good historical popcorn drama.