FEB 2017 SCREENING: ROOTS (2016 REMAKE)
For my final installment of the legendary Roots miniseries, I take a look at the brand spankin’ new remake, which aired last year on the History Channel. Alex Haley died in 1992, so this Haley-less remake was an attempt by modern television to “update” the historical saga for 21st century audiences. Did they succeed? Let’s take a look.
Unlike the original miniseries spanning 6-8 episodes (maybe even 9, depending on how you look at it), its 2016 counterpart tries to tell the same story in four roughly 95 minute episodes. Essentially, like this review, this means they tried to cover the same material in half the time. Did it work? Yes and no. Night 1 basically combined Episode 1 and 2 of the original Roots, along with some Christmas themed ideas from Roots: The Gift thrown in for good measure. The remake DOES seem far more historically accurate at first: unlike the 1977 miniseries, the African tribes have had trade deals with whites many times in the past and are very familiar with the slave trade, and profit from it. The subplot from the original miniseries about the Christian man becoming captain of a slave ship and being emotionally conflicted is gone, but it’s not necessary here since the story is almost entirely from the Africans point of view this time, and Kunta Kinte barely sees white people for most of the episode and they come across as some strange alien presence. The (fictional) slave revolt was also done much better this time around. One of the biggest changes of the entire remake is that Forrest Whittaker is Fiddler instead of Lou Gossett Jr., and he portrays him as a very different character. A lot of character development in the original is lost here, and I didn’t care for Fiddler being killed off by evil slave owners rather than dying of old age like the original miniseries, as it seemed like a forced attempt to add more drama so Kunta would have a reason to escape. Not as compelling as the riveting “must see” cliffhangers of the original miniseries, but still, it was very well done and added enough new stuff to make it fresh.
*** out of ****
Thankfully, middle aged Kunta Kinte isn’t played by an actor who looks nothing at all like the previous one. This miniseries actually does the opposite and does very little aging makeup, so it’s not convincing that the 20-something actor from the first episode is supposed to be middle aged in this one. Like the previous episode, this one essentially combines episode 3 and 4 of the original miniseries. (For some bizarre reason, a subplot about a black character reaching the end of his rope and holding himself hostage in a barn with a gun was originally used in Roots: The Next Generation, but ends up recycled in this episode that takes place over a century earlier) Kizzy’s white friend from the original miniseries was more ditzy and fun to watch the first time around, but the remake gives us some additional background about their friendship as children, so seeing them as BFF’s as adults works better in this version. Due to the brisk pace, however, the subplot about Kizzy visiting her parents plantation years later to find out her father is dead was omitted from this one, and that subtraction cut out some emotional gravitas the original miniseries had. Kizzy being introduced to her new master and being raped and impregnated by the white slave owner is done much more brutally here (though the character was much more of a obnoxious sleazy drunk in 1977. Here, he’s just an arrogant power-hungry jerk), and it ends with her being forced to give birth to his baby. Roots the remake is even more violent and bleak than its predecessor, but accomplishes much of the same goals.
*** out of ****
Combining Chicken George’s entire chicken fighting saga into a single episode worked the best of the remake episodes, and it was far more awkward the first time around when it was spliced into different episodes in order to end on a cliffhanger. As with episode 2, we also get some background material on Chicken George as a child – something the original miniseries lacked. Likewise, the casting is better here too – the adult Chicken George looks a bit like Trevor Noah, and seeing how Trevor Noah is half white, this casting was believable as a mixed race character in the way the original miniseries lacked. Still, for all the stuff this episode has going for it, it seems to lack a lot of the fun and compelling nature of the original miniseries, and goes through much of the same material without putting a new spin on it like the first two episodes accomplished. I actually “felt” for the slave master’s desperation more at the end of this episode when he loses everything he owns and is forced to give George to British slave-owners to pay back his debt, even though Master Tom Lea is a thoroughly reprehensible person and the audience should be delighted to see this evil bastard financially ruined. Like episode 2, George’s anguish at being taken away is much more intense than the original miniseries. Still, it never quite worked for me.
** ½ out of ****
Unlike the original miniseries, the remake promised to show what happened to George during his 20 years in England, and I found it to be somewhat anti-climatic. I also realized a plot hole that escaped me the first time around: if this story is historically accurate, and in real life England abolished slavery in the 1830s, how the heck is George a slave in England until the 1850s? Like the original miniseries, he does eventually buy his own freedom and come back to the United States just in time for the civil war. This episode two really good things going for it: the civil war battle scenes are much more realistic and epic in scope than the original, and it adds a very compelling and heartbreaking subplot a about a white abolitionist (played by Anna Paquin) who goes undercover as a southerner to leak information, and is discovered and hung. Thankfully, it also lacks the abrupt “trick everyone in town to think we’re still working on the plantation and then triumphantly get away and live happily ever after” storybook ending of the original miniseries. Here, the abolition of slavery is handled much more down to earth, and it wraps up nicely with a conclusion about what happened to Alex Haley’s family until his birth in 1921. Still, I felt a remake of Roots: The Next Generation was in order. Most remakes incorporate material from the sequels to the original story in order to provide a deeper understanding of the original story. Here, we get a lot extra material that wasn’t in the original story, but additional details from the entire original saga are lost and their absence often simplifies the story too much.
** ½ out of ****
Overall, both the original 1977 series and its 2016 remake are worth checking out, and both have different strengths and weaknesses. In many ways, the remake is superior. Still, the original had a dramatic effect on television history that is remake simply can’t come close to, and most importantly, the original Roots and its sequel series feel complete and mammoth in scope. The remake does not.