TV review: Roots, BBC Four
- Brian Donaldson
- 3 February 2017
Remake of the landmark 70s drama about the American slave trade is an equally traumatic watch
When Roots arrived on bookshelves in 1976, Americans were flush in the middle of ticker-taping their bicentennial celebrations. One year later, the TV adaptation of Alex Haley's tome dropped into US homes, where some white people may have had pause for honouring those founding fathers who were keen on having the odd slave or two around the place. It shook an otherwise complacent nation which would have much rather swept its dark history right under the rug.
Last summer, this remake was broadcast in the States at the exact point when a presidential candidate was happy to receive support from the KKK and was egging on the abuse of black protesters at his rallies. Now that he's actually, somehow, found himself in the White House, the nationalist alt-right holds sway once again, making Roots even more vital as a tool for Americans to take stock of the racism that lies ingrained in their country's psyche.
Once again, the tale (set in 18th century West Africa) revolves around the young and proud warrior Kunta Kinte (London's Malachi Kirby, most recently seen in Black Mirror's 'Men Against Fire') who is eventually purchased by a Virginia tobacco magnate John Waller (James Purefoy). While Kinte's spirit is continually challenged and his body degraded, he hangs on to his identity for as long as possible, until the imposed slave name of Toby finally takes hold.
While the lush production values occasionally dilute the horror that unfolds (there's a touch of Game of Thrones and Walking Dead about some of the more extreme dismemberments and images of heads stuck on pikes) but the brandings, lashings and beatings never fail to have an impact. There's not a hope in hell that this would be essential viewing in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but the rest of the world should be sitting up and continuing to take notice.
Roots starts on BBC Four, Wed 8 Feb, 9pm