Roots Night 1
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Teleplay by Lawrence Konner and Marc Rosenthal
Based on the novel by Alex Haley
Starring Laurence Fishburne, James Purefoy, Matthew Goode, Anika Noni Rose, Forest Whitaker, and Malachi Kirby The History Channel | A&E | Lifetime
Air Date: Monday, May 30th, 2016, 9:00pm
Roots, the 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, turned America upside down with its powerful story of warrior and slave, Kunta Kinte, and his descendants. With Levar Burton and then John Amos as Kunta Kinte/Toby, Roots made television history with unprecedented ratings and tons of Emmy nominations. A+E Networks brings Roots back tonight, in a reimagined series simulcast on three of its networks, The History Channel, A&E, and Lifetime. With Malachi Kirby in the lead role, it’s starting out as powerful as the first.
Spoilers for Roots: Night 1 below.
Roots “Night 1” review: “This is how I heard about the boy Kunta Kinte,” Alex Haley’s (Laurence Fishburne) voice penetrates the credits. The movie opens to hands-to-feet chained slaves.
And then to…
Juffure, West Africa 1750 – That kingdom kept slaves as servants. Some sold slaves to the white men for guns and gold. Omoro Kinte (Babs Olusanmokun), a Mandinka and Kunta’s father, stopped his rivals, the Koros, from such trade, for not getting permission from the king. They are out for revenge.
Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) is born, named, and happy. He falls in love, but she is to be married to a rival Koros.
At a celebration of song and dance, the Koros come. Kunta gets into a fight over the girl Jinna (Simona Brown), but it is soon broken up. Then he is kidnapped and you think, “This is it!” but it is a rite of a young man’s passage. Those who are successful will be warriors. Those who are not – will be banished. These would-be warriors watch… powerful images of slaves chained, taken to the whites for gold and guns. While Kunta was passing another test, he swam up to a boat with a dead man in it from his tribe, and tells the others. The warrior ceremony is moved up. He gets a house, and respect, and a horse. However, he wants to go to the university in Timbuktu, to the disappointment of his parents. Defiant, he jumps on his new horse and rides to Jinna to talk love, but the Koros find him to ransom. Kunta kills the son and there is a chase. but he is soon caught, sold, branded, and in the ship, comforting his Uncle Silla (Derek Luke) with his voice and dreaming of his family.
He doesn’t want to eat, and they force feed him, but his uncle implores and tries to rally the rest of the chained. They sing songs. This is so hard to watch – he is flooded with the memories of his parents and the song his mother sang to him at birth.
They bring the men up to get washed off and to dance so they don’t wither in leg and limb. They start singing of taking over the ship. Jinna is on the ship for the captain to use. She tries to jump, but they grab her. Then as an example, they cut off his uncle’s infected arm.
Soon they fight… and almost win in a bloody showdown of axes, javelins, cannons, and gunfire. Bodies, dead and barely alive thrown overboard. Heads on spikes, including Uncle Silla’s, decay in decoration.
Annapolis, Maryland – 87 days after capture – June 1767
Time for selling. Kunta is sold to Waller (James Purefoy). As he drives by the fields, he does not understand why the slaves who are so many, do not stand up to the white men who are so few. He runs and the older slave gives chase. He is stopped by the cruel overseer (Tony Curran). Kunta sees the older slave sold and families ripped apart. We meet Fiddler (Forest Whitaker). The overseer gives “Toby” to Fiddler because he knows he will run and Fiddler will have to go.
Kunta and Fiddler get into a Toby vs Kunta Kinte debate. Toby is working the fields. A slave girl wants him. He does not want his baby to be a slave.
4 months later and he is still defiant. Mandinka! He finds a piece of metal and starts working on escape. Kunta sings his mother’s lullabye tune and Fiddler is moved.
November – Waller’s wife (Katie McGuinness) wants Toby to tend to her horse and he is defiant. Waller’s brother (Matthew Goode) has a thing for the wife. Waller comes and slaps Toby. What will happen to Fiddler?
Kunta: “Fiddler, what is your name?”
Christmas Eve – Fiddler helps him escape. He breaks the chain and he steals the stallion, while Fiddler plays… his mother’s song. Kunta makes it away, but is recaptured. Waller decides to sell Fiddler at the overseer’s urging, but his brother buys him.
He is whipped mercilessly, seeing visions of his parents. He won’t say Toby… until he does. Try not to cry during this scene, when they break this proud warrior.
“It don’t matter what the master call you, you keep your true name inside.” Whitaker gives some speech, while applying grease to Kunta’s battered flesh – so graphic you see the fat squeezed out from under the skin.
What a start! Kirby plays defiant warrior to perfection, and the developing relationship between Kunta Kinte and Whitaker’s Fiddler is lovely to watch, like Kunta has woken up the man inside of him. The slave ship and plantation scenes are heartbreaking, and the creators did an incredibly good job pulling us into the series in horrifying detail. I did watch Roots long ago, but did not really understand what I was seeing, being so young.
Purefoy, McGuiness, and Goode walk the line between cruelty and kindness, that seems to border on insanity with skill. Curran’s overseer makes you believe the actor is as cruel as his character. You don’t want Kunta Kinte to become accepting of this fate like the others… but damn you, dramatic irony!
Do not miss this! You have to watch.
Roots: “Night 1” airs tonight at 9:00pm ET on The History Channel, A&E, and Lifetime. Part 2,3,and 4 air May 31st, June 1st, and June 2nd respectively.
ROOTS is a historical portrait of American slavery recounting the journey of one family’s will to survive, endure and ultimately carry on their legacy despite enormous hardship and inhumanity. Spanning multiple generations, the lineage begins with young Kunta Kinte who is captured in his homeland in The Gambia and transported in brutal conditions to colonial America where he’s sold into slavery. Throughout the series, the family continues to face 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 story of Kunta Kinte and the women and men who came after him echoes through the history of millions of Americans of African descent, and reveals powerful truths about the universal resilience of the human spirit.
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