The Memorial Day airing of the History Channel's reimagined slavery epic Roots ain’t your mama’s Roots from back in the day. While many kids in 1977 stayed up well past bedtime watching the original, this 2016 version of the much-touted miniseries is rated TV-14 for a reason.
The brutality and bloody, violent imagery is a lot to process, according to Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, a University of Texas at Austin slavery expert and history consultant to the eight-hour miniseries, which airs at 9 p.m., Monday on the History Channel. It may be challenging for teens, and children will certainly hear about if even if they’re not watching each night.
“It’s graphic and very much in line with what’s going on in the story,” says Berry, who is trying to determine if she will allow her 10-year-old son to watch. “[With] some of the Middle Passage stuff I was thinking about my son. I would hate for kids to struggle because they see people like them, their age, getting harmed. Not just seeing violence but seeing things happen to kids. That will be scary.”
That said, this version, starring Forrest Whitaker as “Fiddler,” Anika Noni Rose as “Kizzy” and Malachi Kirby as “Kunta Kinte,” comes at a time when millions of children have seen the teenage Michael Brown laying dead on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, after being shot by a White police officer. Some parents might argue that today’s young teens are already used to seeing violence on TV. Yet Roots could affect them differently than traditional crime stories.
If the miniseries stings, it will be for a good reason, says Berry, who appreciates the attention to historical detail and willingness to incorporate the latest scholarship about the Senegambia region where the character Kunte Kinte, Roots author Alex Haley’s forebear, lived before being given up to slave traders. The production took great pains to achieve authenticity right down to dress, construction material and style of slave quarters, and using the exact type of tobacco grown in the 18th century American south.
This remade Roots incorporates more research about Gambia and the Mandinka culture, Berry says, taking great pains to ensure characters spoke with the actual African languages spoken at the time. Research reveals Kunte Kinte came from an area that owned horses, so the same type of horse is featured in the film.
Roots doesn’t shy away from the truth about Africans’ own role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, either, and the series’ depiction of the Middle Passage makes “Amistad” look mild, Berry says. She describes unhealthy, emaciated bodies, and depictions of captives watching other captives dying next to them or committing suicide. There’s a mutiny scene that’s also rather graphic.
“The makeup of the whipping, the back, it looks very real,” says Berry, who was on set in Louisiana during the filming. Unlike typical movie whipping marks that can look false and painted on, in this version, “you can see the gashes, the chunks of skin; it’s like chunks of skin all over the place.”
Watching the series will spark the need for “The Conversation,” that all-too-familiar talk African American families often have about understanding race and racism in American culture, says Dr. Keffrelyn D. Brown, a University of Texas at Austin expert on cultural competency in American classrooms.
Though her son, Canaan, is only 7, he saw a graphic depiction of the Middle Passage in a museum, which caused Brown, and her husband, Anthony, to talk about slavery much sooner than they had hoped.
“When we first talked to Canaan, we didn’t talk about slavery, per se,” Brown says. “We tried to start out conversations around ancient Africa and the kingdoms there so he could have a more affirmative understanding before we talked about the African holocaust.”
“We explained that is was a system of slavery where White people bought Black people and brought them to this country, and that’s a big part of why Black people are here,” says Brown, noting her son started connecting the dots on his own when he learned about inequality and the Civil Rights Movement.
The takeaway for him, and for any child who will invariably hear about the series, even if they’re not allowed to watch, is people have a responsibility to work against and try to change unfairness in “inequitable systems in our society,” Brown says.
The truth is that Roots is another opportunity to start a dialogue linking our history to contemporary contradictions, Brown says, such as anti-Blackness and police brutality, and to understand the ways in which White privilege is sustained in American public life.
Brown’s research advocates against the rampant sanitizing of public school textbooks that don’t tell the truth of about slavery and its effects. Says Brown: “Children should learn a more truthful history of our country even as it might be unsavory.”
With all of these caveats, why should viewers, particularly African-American families, watch Roots this time around? If nothing else, viewers will better understand the rich history and cultural context from which African-Americans hailed, giving the enslaved a vision of freedom even if buried in a faint but epic memory.
The History Channel started the dialogue with ”Roots Sunday”, which allows faith-based groups to sign up for trailers and talking points to help process this rich and challenging narrative, among other activities. Black viewers can begin strong in the knowledge this series represents the triumph of love, family, place and legacy—and it’s all true.
“This should give people a boost, Black folks especially, because it really shows the strength of Black culture and the Black community,” Berry says. “When it’s being ripped apart nationally, now is a great time to show it. We need something like this.”
Deborah Douglas is a journalist and adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University.