Considering that the original mini-series of Roots is one of the best-known and most-watched TV series of all times, I was expecting this new version to be making headlines; but it seems to be slipping under the radar. I know it’s on BBC 4, but surely the days of people only watching things that are on BBC 1 or ITV (1) are over. I’d be interested to know how much attention it received in the US when it was shown there, which I believe was last May/June.
I’ve read the book, but I’m not old enough to have watched the original series. Hooray – there’s actually something I’m too young for!! There’s been a lot of controversy about the story since then. For one thing, it’s been admitted that some sections were copied from an earlier book about slavery. For another thing, it’s supposed to be the true story of Alex Haley’s ancestors, but it’s now known that there are a lot of inaccuracies, whether intentional, unintentional or a bit of both, in terms of genealogical records not matching what’s in the book. It’s unfortunate, because, even if the story isn’t an accurate telling of the history of one family, and even if some of it isn’t even Alex Haley’s own work, it’s still an accurate depiction of the sort of things that did happen to many people, and it really drew attention to a subject which at that time hadn’t really been explored on screen.
Obviously times have changed since then, and the new series cannot possibly have the same effect as the original because it isn’t a ground-breaker in the way that that was. There are mixed views about films and TV series which address slavery, as there are with those which address, for example, the Holocaust, or even countries which have spent many years under foreign domination. Some people feel that they’re important from an educational viewpoint and that these are subjects of which awareness needs to be maintained. Others feel that they have a negative effect and encourage views of certain sections of the population as victims: Snoop Dogg has criticised both Roots and Twelve Years A Slave for that reason. Anyway, everyone has their own opinions on the subject, and I’m inclined to go with the view that they’re educational. History is important. You can’t ignore the bad stuff.
So. On to the new series … and it’s strange, because it’s doesn’t feel like an American series at all. Well, the early scenes wouldn’t, because they were set in The Gambia, but they didn’t feel like they were set in The Gambia because most of the cast were speaking in South African accents. When we actually got to the Virginia, the plantation owners were speaking in cut-glass upper-crust English accents – surely not very likely, in the 1770s – and the overseer was speaking in an Irish accent! The overseer on the next plantation was speaking in a Scottish accent. There are actually a whole load of British actors in the cast – including Malachi Kirby, who played Nancy Carter’s dodgy ex-fiancé in EastEnders, doing an absolutely superb job in the lead role of Kunta Kinte. That’s another reason I’d expect the series to be getting more attention here than it is doing. Oh well.
Some if it is literally very dark – I appreciate that some scenes are meant to depict night-time, or the insides of ill-lit buildings, but there are times when it’s difficult to see what was going on. That’s my only real criticism of it, though. A lot of it is figuratively speaking very dark, but it has to be. But, when people say that it’s just presenting certain sections of the population of victims, they miss one of the main points of Roots – that Kunta Kinte never forgets who he is, and never allows his mind and spirit to be shackled, despite all the horrific things that are done to him. There’s more than one message to be taken from this story.
It’s a difficult subject, and, in the current political climate, some people will seek to use any difficult subject for their own political ends – and well done to the History Channel for not doing that, for just telling the story. I can’t compare it to the original because I haven’t seen the original, and it’s difficult to compare it to the book because it’s difficult to compress a very long and complex book into six hours of television, but this series deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting. It hasn’t even been advertised on BBC 1 or BBC 2. Strange. And rather sad, because I think a lot more people might have watched it had they known it was on. And it deserves that.