When the original Roots miniseries aired in 1977, it was a cultural phenomenon. More than half of the U.S. population at the time (or an estimated 130 million people) reportedly tuned in to watch the epic story of Kunta Kinte and his family lineage, from the time he was kidnapped from his home in Africa in the mid-1700s and sold into slavery in America, to the plight of his great grandchildren and beyond. Tonight, a new generation of viewers will have the chance to see Kinte’s family journey with fresh eyes. In a television event fit for 2016, the History Channel, A&E, and Lifetime will simulcast the eight-hour event series over four consecutive nights—and it’s sure to be the must-watch moment of the holiday weekend, if not the year.
With an all-star cast that includes Derek Luke, Laurence Fishburne, Anika Noni Rose, Forest Whitaker, Matthew Goode, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Mekhi Phifer, and Anna Paquin, among many others, the series also presents stunning newcomer Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte. LeVar Burton, who played Kinte in the original series, is even a co-executive producer, bringing the epic saga full circle.
We discussed the cultural significance of Roots, its place in present-day America and in this country’s history, and its acclaimed cast and characters with one of the series’s leading women, Anika Noni Rose (who is also seen in Starz Power, and BET’s upcoming The Yard). In Roots, Rose plays Kinte’s resilient only daughter, Kizzy. Read through for her take on the phenomena and why it should be required viewing for everyone, beginning tonight.
Roots premieres tonight, Monday, May 30, at 9 p.m. ET on History, A&E, and Lifetime.
Why is it important to remake this story now?
"It’s a spyglass into the birth of our country. Us as Americans, not just Black Americans. It can give us insight into why we treat each other the way we treat each other now. Why young people of color are being mowed down by cops in the streets still,” Rose said. “If we don’t continue to talk about it and tell the truth about it, it will continue to be smudged and softened, and rounded at the edges, and I think we as Americans owe ourselves the truth of who we are. It’s important not to have kids saying, ‘That was so long ago. Why can’t we stop talking about it? That’s the past.’ It's the truth of who we are and as long as we tell the truth, we can continue to move forward. It was not that long ago.”
You play Kunta Kinte’s only child, Kizzy. Tell us about your role.
“I have been in a situation that is probably unlike many other people’s situation, because I have been taught to read by the young girl who is the mistress of the plantation. My mother is essentially a doctor and has passed those skills on to me, and my dad has taught me to be a warrior because he didn’t have a son and he was a forward-thinking man who knew he would have to teach his daughter the skills to survive. But things go bad really quickly and I’m sold off to a plantation where I’m immediately treated worse than I ever could have imagined as a young girl.”
Kizzy is such a strong character. What do you admire about her?
“I admire her ability to persevere. I admire her ability to love her child [the son of the plantation master] and I imagine that must be so difficult to look at the face of the person that raped you everyday. Seeing that face in your child and still teaching this child how to live and how to survive and loving him as if he had come to you from a union of love. I think there is a strength there that is remarkable. He is the only lineage and she is determined that he knows exactly who he comes from and what that means.”
How does the new series differ from the original Roots and the books it’s based upon?
“The book is an epic tome, so there’s no way to put everything in there. But there is a lot of stuff that wasn’t able to be in the original series because they didn’t have the same research tools that we have in 2016,” said Rose, who reread the books in preparation for the role. “We have so much more information about the journey; the life that was lived in Africa is much more full and complete than it was in the original because we now know that the place where Kunta Kinte’s people were from was not some tiny village. It was a huge city; they had a library and schools, and they were horse warriors, and they had family and lineage. It was really somewhat of an amazing and very civilized place.”
What do you hope people take away from this story, whether seeing it for the first time or returning to the story?
“I hope it's something people watch with their families and that it opens conversation. I hope it spurs a level of human compassion and makes people more open to the person next to them on the train or bus, or walking on the street, and to what their journey may have been and what their life is about.”
How was it working with this all-star cast?
“I got to work with Erica Tazel, who people know from Justified, who was my rock during production. She is one of the most beautiful spirits and we were just holding each other up at times,” said Rose, who also spent time on set with Laurence Fishburne. “We have a lot of newcomers as well. Rege-Jean Page, who plays my son, Chicken George. And who I didn’t get to act with, but I really connected with, was Malachi Kirby who plays Kunta Kinte. My good lord, this man is so beautiful, and I don’t just mean physical beauty. You see his spirit come shooting through his eyes.”
Tell us about the ancestry project on History’s website that is attached to the series as well?
The network “connected with 23andMe, which is a major DNA ancestry genealogy site, to allow people to get tips and figure out what their ancestry really is who they are connected to. What most people find out is, very often, we’re all related,” Rose said. “People want to know now like they did in 1976. When the original miniseries came out, it spurred a huge movement toward finding where your origins lie. It’s really cool.”