What an extremely bold move it is to try and remake one of the most beloved and popular miniseries of all time. When “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, first aired back in 1977, it was an event watched by around 30 million people for each of its eight nights, with the final part still ranking as one of the most-watched episodes of any show of all time. The news that it was going to be redone was nothing short of a surprise. After all, why would you bother remaking something that was practically perfect the first time? However, given the importance and grandeur of the infamous story of Kunta Kinte and his family, a new telling for a new generation could be just what it needs to continue spreading its enduring message of hope.
Starting in the 1750s, we witness the birth of Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), an African warrior who has his sights set on marrying a beautiful woman of his tribe and going to study at University. His dreams are destroyed when a rival tribe sells him to the English as a slave, resulting in him being crammed onto a boat with several other Africans and shipped to America. Eventually he ends up on the plantation of John Waller (James Purefoy), where he thinks of nothing except escape for the next several months. He tries to do so a couple of times, but is just caught and brought back, losing part of his foot as a punishment.
With all hope of escape lost, he wants nothing more than to give up, but with the help of fellow slave Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), he becomes well once more, eventually making her his wife. From here, we continue to trace Kunta’s lineage from his daughter Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose), who is sold to a man named Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), to her son Chicken George (Rege-Jean Page), who fights chickens for Lea and participates in the Civil War, to his children, which includes Tom (Sedale Threatt Jr.), hailed as one of the best blacksmiths around. All of their stories combined weave the incredible tale that is “Roots.”
Putting aside the initial hesitation that such a remake would bring, what we have here is still a decent telling of Haley’s epic tale that brings with it many of the same elements that made the original work so well. Of course, there’s the powerful story, which is enough to pull any viewer into the plight of this family. Their continued hardships make for captivating viewing and leave you hanging on through each and every turn in the hope that someday things will turn out better, even though most of the audience will already know when that will be.
As mentioned earlier, this is a story of hope, along with perseverance and survival, in the face of overwhelming difficulty. There are so many points along this narrative in which any of the characters could have given up, but their determination to be free or be reunited with their families drives their existence and forces them to move forward, and if that doesn’t make for some compelling viewing, then I’m not sure what would qualify.
That being said, there are a number of lulls throughout the six and a half hour (four part) series that do seem to slow the story down every now and again. Luckily they don’t do much to hinder the tale, for the stronger, more captivating parts of the story outweigh these by a wide margin. It’s been years since I last saw the original series, so I can’t remember exactly, but I’m sure it too had its share of downtime, especially since it ran a good three hours longer than this remake. However, even when the epic tale is trimmed down considerably, there are still some parts that feel like they’re holding it back just a bit.
Another element that has worked so wonderfully in favor of both series is the excellent casting. You may recall that the original had big names (or soon to be, in some cases) like LeVar Burton, Louis Gossett Jr., Edward Asner, Cicely Tyson, Richard Roundtree, Robert Reed, and John Amos. The new cast might not quite be able to stack up to that, but it still includes some fine performances from relative newcomer Malachi Kirby, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew Goode, Rege-Jean Page, and Anika Noni Rose. There may not be as many big names, but every single one of them was up to the task of bringing this incredible story to life.
All-in-all, this new adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel does justice to the powerful narrative, bringing with it a number of emotional punches as it spins its epic yarn. It might have to put up with being in the shadow of the infamous original series from 1977, but there are still plenty of reasons to give this new version a try, including the great cast, a stellar production design, and, of course, a story that will have you hooked for most of the six and a half hour runtime, which is no simple task to perform.
“Roots” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. The picture remains perfectly sharp and clear throughout all four parts of the miniseries, which does a great job of showing off all of the incredible period detail that went into this epic telling of the tale. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue and score in fantastic quality. Overall, the series has been given top-notch treatment, leaving no room for complaint in either department.
Roots: A History Revealed (43 Minutes): An interesting documentary that explores the history of slavery in regards to Alex Haley’s novel.
This new adaptation of Alex Haley’s “Roots” may have a fair amount of downtime throughout its six and a half hour runtime, but it rises on the strengths of its emotionally powerful narrative and outstanding cast, making this a version that does justice to its source material. There were indeed those that questioned the need for a remake and the possibility of its success. However, as we can see here, when the story is this strong and this important, a second adaptation is not only possible, but perhaps also necessary.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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