James Hanton Reviews BBC4’s Roots

It has taken its time to get here, but the remake of the 1977 miniseries has finally found its way across the Atlantic. Roots comes with near-universal praise from its American reviewers. The task now is to replicate this kind of success in a country where slavery is not as engrained in the national memory (although after watching the first episode, it’s clear it should be).

After being kidnapped from his family by a rival tribe, Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) is sold to British slavers who take him to America. There he finds himself purchased by plantation owner John Waller (James Purefoy). It falls to the slave musician Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) to force the boy into a harsh new reality while also protecting him from the vicious plantation foreman.

For the first half an hour or so, you may be forgiven for believing Roots to be overhyped. While Kunta’s backstory is full of intrigue and suspense, it fails to pull you in as much as it should. The viewer is more of a visitor pointing and peering through the screen, rather than feeling the tall grass brush against their legs or truly hearing the cries as the young men undergo a brutal training regime.

This changes when Kunta is loaded onto a galleon with countless other African men. This is one of the most savage depictions of the Middle Passage ever committed to screen – the only thing clearer than the captors’ resentment of these soon-to-be slaves is the glint of the dollar symbol in their eyes. It is a claustrophobic, haunting experience which stays with the viewer despite everything else which unfolds in the next 45 minutes.

Kirby is phenomenal as a man whose whole way of life is being torn down, and who is forced to kneel to the monstrosity of Colonialism. The sunken look in his eyes, interspersed with frighteningly real flashes of anger and pain, make this an unforgettable portrayal of torment and emotion. The episode ends with the brutal enforcement of his new name, visibly sucking the life and the hope out of his battered body.

While on the plantation, many sub-plots emerge which will surely be investigated in later episodes. Waller, for instance, owes a substantial debt to his brother William (Matthew Goode) and Fiddler’s favour with the family he serves is set on a downward spiral the moment that Kunta arrives. Roots does not make the mistake of allowing emotional power to drown out an engaging plot.

The plantation is set to be the space where the next three episodes unfold. Such a vivid retelling of a harsh historical truth is something you will struggle to turn away from in good conscience.

Image: Currier & Ives @wikimedia

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