The remake of Roots is giving us a richer look at Alex Haley’s family tree, and tonight was just the first chapter.
Off top, the story seems a little fuller–more rounded out. This isn’t to say that the original Roots was somehow lacking, but Will Packer revealed to The Black Girl Nerds podcast that producers behind the re-telling had more information at their disposal than the original production crew did. And they use it very well.
We find out this time that Kunta Kinte’s father was actually stopping African slavers trading with European slavers and freeing captives on the day that Kunta was born. This just gives you an idea of how long the slave trade had been going on. There was never a time in Kunta’s life where it wasn’t a thing.
Next, we see him as a young man coming of age in Juffure, West Africa. He’s like any other local kid, but his childhood soon comes to an end as he’s taken out for warrior training–a rite of passage for young men in his village. His teachers emphasize that an unprepared warrior would be easy prey for slavers. The young men see this for themselves during their training exercises as canoes full of slaves to be traded with Europeans pass them by.
The young men are welcomed back to their village as freshly minted warriors, who will soon be joining the service of the king. Kunta, however, has different ideas for himself. He takes off into the forest to find the girl he’d like to marry (and eventually run away with her to a university), and they’re ambushed by the very African slavers his father fought off so many years ago.
As it turns out, Kunta and his uncle were captured as revenge against his father. They find out that they are on the same slave ship.
The scenes on the slave ship are chilling, disorenting, and deeply disturbing. The producers have been pretty graphic in this remake of Roots, and it drives home how horrifying the entire experience was for those captured. It was hard not to have a visceral reaction to much of what was seen.
They were held in darkness, force fed, and brutalized for months. The women were immediately put to work, but the conditions were not any better for them as they were raped countless times during the 87 days it took to get to America.
The captured Africans once tried to stage a rebellion, but they couldn’t overtake the ship’s crew–although they did manage to take more than a few of them down. The captain put several heads on pikes–including that of his undle–as an example to the captives to look at while the remaining crew dumped dead people over the side of the ship.
Once they reached Annapolis, Maryland, Kunta was inspected like cattle and sold off to a man from Virginia. Still unwilling to give up his fight for freedom, Kunta tried to escape while being carted onto the plantation. When he managed to do so, he couldn’t understand why the other Black people were not helping him to escape. He did know that they had already been enslaved and were not going to run for their freedom despite greatly outnumbering the overseer. These people were his color, but they were not his kind.
Kunta was soon placed under the care of a slave named Fiddler, who was favored by the master’s wife, Elizabeth. She also dubbed him Toby, but Kunta never accepted the name, rarely answering to it.
Fiddler was responsible for getting Kunta acclimated to how things worked in this new place. As Elizabeth’s favorite, Fiddler had marked out a relatively comfortable existence for himself; if Kunta couldn’t perform to expectations, Fiddler would be in trouble. This meant that Fiddler was incredibly invested in “Toby” doing well. Even after months of working on the plantation, Kunta continued to think of ways that he
In one of their quieter moments, Fiddler recognizined a song from Kunta’s past as something his grandmother used to sing to him. Through this, Fiddler found himself sympathizing with Kunta enough to help him plot an escape on Christmas Eve.
Kunta stole away in the middle of the night as the slaves were dancing around a fire (not unlike the villagers had in Juffure). Fiddler was up at the main house playing a tune for the master’s guests to hide any noise he might make while taking Elizabeth’s horse.
While Kunta made it a good distance from the plantation, he was eventually captured and hauled back. The vindictive overseer blamed Fiddler for Kunta’s run, convincing the master to sell him off. Not even Elizabeth’s favor could save him. Fiddler wouldn’t have to go very far, though, as the master’s brother bought him. You know, like you would a used car. Ugh.
And this is all happening as Kunta was lashed to a post for one of the most traumatic scenes of the night as the overseer relentlessly whips him, demanding that he acknowledge his slave name. The rest of the slaves had to look on horror as the overseer split his back open with every iron-tipped strike, digging deep wounds into his back. Their faces were a mix of fear, anger, sadness, shock, and disbelief.
It wasn’t until Kunta was delirious with pain that he relented and acknowledged the name Toby. The overseer, the master, his wife, and his brother all went back into the house to continue celebrating Christmas as Fiddler tended to a battered and bloodied Kunta.
And Fiddler made it a point to let Kunta know that no matter what the master chose to call him, he will always be Kunta.
Come back Tuesday for our recap of Part 2 of Roots.