Monday, June 6, 2016

The new 'Roots" doesn't measure up

In 1977, along with millions of other Americans, I watched "Roots." Watching the eight-night spectacular took a commitment, but it was one that millions of us gladly accepted. I was eager to see miniseries because I had read Alex Haley's book and found it moving and enlightening.

The miniseries captivated Americans, helping them to understand the African-American experience and igniting an explosion of interest in genealogy. It was genealogy that prompted Haley's research and his years-long quest to find the person behind the family legends about The African — the first member of the family to arrive in America. Kunta Kinte arrived in chains, but his story and the lives of his descendants tell us much about all Americans.

Although skeptical about a remake of a miniseries widely viewed as a great classic, I decided I would watch the 2016 version of "Roots" partly just to see what a new generation would do with Haley's masterpiece. After two episodes of the four-episode series, I've packed it in. The new "Roots," despite excellent cinematography and some production techniques not available in the 1970s, cannot compare to the original series.

Haley's book and the original TV production were all about a family's "roots" — genealogy, discovering your family's past to help us understand the present. The new series from the History Channel seems more interested in examining the shame of slavery and extolling life in pre-colonial Africa while adding as much violence as possible. The new Kunta Kinte repeatedly flashes back to his African heritage, even decades after his arrival in America, and each flashback is inspiring.

Kunta Kinte of 2016 borrows from the popular superhero movies on this decade, creating an African immigrant who conjures super strength, super endurance and super determination by recalling his Mandinka warrior past. But I found the explosions, mindless cruelty and torture far too dominant and repulsive. Haley's family survived the cruelty and oppression by finding strength in family stories about a noble ancestor for whom family was everything and not simply by enduring great violence.

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