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.


Trump’s Judgement Test

It’s midnight on a Tuesday and I’m once again going through the motions of yet another Situational Judgement Test for yet another graduate scheme. Precisely a week ago, I was settling in to watch as the United States celebrated its continued respect for logic and reason, electing Hillary Clinton as President-elect.

Yes, it truly was a happier time. But now, in my subsequent disillusionment with the state of humanity, I’ve been grappling once again with the fact that the presidency is a job for which Donald Trump is woefully under-qualified. One of the rare things that Mr. Trump and I shared, then – besides an insatiable desire to emblazon our names on skyscrapers and a tendency to eat KFC with cutlery – was that we were both optimistically applying for jobs for which we had a total lack of relevant experience.

Yet, it seems from the exit polls, if any value can still be accredited to their findings, that he had managed to convince voters that he is possessing of the character, temperament, and skills, of a desirable leader. Wouldn’t it have been brilliant, though, if Trump – like us plebs – had instead had to take a Situational Judgement Test to assess his suitability for the role of President of the United States?

The Clintons’ Islamophobia

Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was intended to humanise his steely wife, and he came across as genuinely smitten as he regaled the audience with tales of their relationship. Moving on to discuss his wife’s political career, he described her as a great “change maker”, though, in truth, he failed to expand upon the specific changes required from America’s next president.

Yet, by far the most jolting moment of his speech came near its end as Clinton set about conscripting various sub-groups of Americans into backing Hillary’s campaign. Between reaching out to undocumented immigrants with the offer of citizenship and to African Americans with support in addressing police brutality, Clinton regrettably stumbled into Trump-ism in his attempts to woo American Muslims, depicting them as foreigners, welcome only to the extent that they assist the war on terror.

If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together, we want you.

The problem, here, is in the assumption. American Muslims should not have to prove their love of America and freedom, nor their hatred of terror, in order to be allowed to remain in their country. Nor is it their duty because of their religion to aid in the war on terror. No such conditions may be imposed upon their citizenship. In short, they ought to be considered in identical terms to the rest of the American population.

Intentionally or otherwise, Clinton implied that Muslims are therefore deserving of extra scrutiny, and are – because of their religion – to be considered guilty until proven innocent with regard to any suspicion of terrorist sympathies. Dr. Muqtedar Khan, professor of International Relations at the University of Delaware, responded to Clinton’s remarks:

No doubt he intended to convey to Muslims, and the rest of America, the contrast between Donald Trump’s exclusivist, neofascist attitude towards Muslims, and Hillary Clinton’s progressive, supportive and inclusive stance towards all minorities including American Muslims, but the one line that mentioned Muslims may have fallen far too short, and even dangerous in repeating the same patterns as other Islamophobes during this election cycle.

[…] The message stated by Clinton is we, American Muslims, can stay here if we love America and freedom and hate terrorism. How generous! […] Why the conditions? And why only while speaking about Muslims would he mention the word terror?

[…] The problem with the semantics of what Clinton said in his speech is that it borrows the Islamophobic assumptions that have plagued American political arena in the past several months. This was a good opportunity for Bill to push back against it and shift the conversation. Unfortunately, he framed his arguments within the same parameters of the Islamophobic discourse employed by Trump which treats Muslims as unwelcome foreigners.

In an election cycle defined by fever-pitched anti-Muslim incitement, Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on Muslims continues to ring with ostentatious tolerance, yet it is repeatedly flanked by qualifiers such as ‘terror-hating’ and ‘peace-loving’, or the seemingly benign ‘moderate Muslim’ tag, which divisively frames the majority of Muslims as the exceptional few. This position represents a wholly condemnable concession on the part of the Democrats towards the neofascism of Trump, and it shifts the Overton Window, the spectrum of political discourse, to a realm wherein such parlance is not only perceived as tolerable but normal.

The implication that the “Americanness” of Muslim U.S. citizens is somehow suspect on the basis of religious background may be an idea that has emanated from the far-right, but it also belies a more troubling reality: the Clinton campaign, which portrays itself as promoting tolerance in the face of Trump-style bigotry, in fact echoes all too casually the dangerous, Islamophobic rhetoric employed by the Republican candidate. Hillary is the lesser of two evils, no doubt, but she is not progressive, nor liberal, and she is certainly not good news for the country, nor the world.