“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.