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‘Roots’ review: History channel’s relentless, beautiful remake of 1977 miniseries

Malachi Kirby and Emayatzy Corinealdi star as Kunta

Malachi Kirby and Emayatzy Corinealdi star as Kunta Kinte and his wife, Belle, in the History Channel adaptation of "Roots". Photo Credit: History / Steve Dietl

WHEN | WHERE Monday -Thursday at 9 p.m. on History, A&E and Lifetime

GRADE B+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” this History channel adaptation of the hugely successful 1977 ABC miniseries stars Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte. Also in the cast are Emayatzy Corinealdi as Kunta Kinte’s wife, Belle; Matthew Goode (“Downton Abbey”) as slave owner William Waller; Jonathan Rhys Meyers as farmer Tom Lea; Regé-Jean Page as “Chicken George,” son of Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose), the only child of Kunta Kinte and Belle. Forest Whitaker stars as The Fiddler, Kunta Kinte’s savior, and Anna Paquin plays abolitionist Nancy Holt. Laurence Fishburne is narrator (and appears briefly at the end as Haley).

The miniseries traces Haley’s family history, from Kunta Kinte’s capture in Gambia in the 18th century, to Chicken George’s family’s release from bondage at the end of the Civil War.

MY SAY The week of January 23, 1977, began like any other but ended like no other. A massive blizzard had locked down the East Coast starting that Friday, the 28th. By Sunday, the blizzard was still raging, and a record 100 million viewers — many snowbound — watched the conclusion of ABC’s “Roots.”

Thanks in part to that providential storm, TV history had changed, and so had history. When “Roots” arrived, the civil rights battles of the ’60s were a decade in the past. Jim Crow laws had been outlawed only 13 years earlier. Maybe most Americans were ready for national expiation or maybe they weren’t. But if “Roots” was any indication, they were willing to listen — or watch.

What could the History channel therefore be thinking? “Roots” isn’t just another one of those “adaptations” you’ve been hearing about lately — a “MacGyver” retread updated for millennials. In fact, both Haley (who died in 1992) and LeVar Burton — Kunta Kinte in the original and an executive producer on this — later spoke of “Roots” in transformational terms. “Unless we come to some kind of terms with the legacy of slavery, it’s impossible for us to live fully in the present, and it makes no sense to try and forge a future,” Burton said in a 2009 interview. Nearly 40 years ago, many agreed and saw “Roots” as a first and necessary step.

What could History be thinking? In fact, the thinking here appears sound. “Roots” is now almost entirely unknown to many born after 1977. And while the original may have been vastly influential, it was also a creature of 1977 production values, full of melodrama, stunt casting (from O.J. Simpson to “The Brady Bunch’s” Robert Reed) and an uneven blend of fact with fiction (Haley had even called his novel “faction”).

In many ways, this “Roots” does improve upon the original. It’s more urgent and visceral, the blood more copious, the agony more intense. This “Roots” doesn’t flinch, but you almost certainly will. The cast is first-rate, too. The original sometimes felt like a cavalcade of TV stars. Other than Whitaker, Fishburne and Paquin, this group is not all that well-known.

Kirby — a 26-year-old British actor who had a recent run on “Eastenders” — sweats and grimaces his way through every scene, his body contorts with each lash. He also brings essential grace and dignity to Kunta Kinte. Before long, his tortured journey becomes the viewer’s journey.

But this “Roots” can’t quite escape the faults of the original. Kunta’s story, the Fiddler’s, and later Chicken George’s, are patterns, and also cycles. They seek dignity, but find only indignity — or abject cruelty — over and over. As a narrative device, it’s essentially a tip sheet. Viewers know exactly how each scene will end, and have to brace themselves in preparation.

Will this “Roots” change the world all over again? Probably not, but at least there’s some power and beauty here. There’s also an implicit message: The retelling of painful history, even “faction,” is better than silence.

BOTTOM LINE Exhausting, relentless, passionate and — in a few unexpected moments — beautiful.

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