The first episode of the Roots remake has finally aired and historians have started to react, and their impressions seem to be largely positive so far. (Snoop Dogg, on the other hand, bashed it, and is calling for a boycott. I think his response is more based on how slavery and the enslaved have been presented in the past, rather on this show or newer shows like Underground).
On Civil War Pop, Christian McWhirter was really taken by the show’s use of music, pointing out how important black music was to slave resistance. This was definitely a missing element of the original, so the show is already reflecting newer interpretations. (Along the same lines, I hope that the religion of the enslaved is explored, because it too was a missing element in the original, and we know so much more about its importance than we did in 1977).
Further, while the time devoted to Kunta’s life in Africa is about equal to the original series, there was no mixing of it with scenes involving a morally conflicted white slave ship captain, as in the original. Also definitely an improvement. The slave trade is handled much better, not glossing over the involvement of African kingdoms and peoples in it. Most impressive is that we see a much more complex and sophisticated African society than in the original.
For me, however, this is where the improvements end.
Yes, it looks way better than the original, Kunta is more manful (LaVar Burton played him as more innocent, yet no less determined) and the action scenes were more thrilling. But the show is not taking its time to tell its story the way the first one did, and thus it is rushing too fast and not developing characters as well.
Most disappointing was the budding relationship between Kunta and Fiddler. It simply is not done as well as in the original, (especially the dialogue) and we do not get to know and understand these characters as well, especially Fiddler (as well as Fiddler’s important relationship with his owner, a character that is developed in the original but just sort of in the background here).
Further, as much as I like Forest Whitaker, his Fiddler is vastly inferior to Louis Gossett Jr.’s. All of this weakens the power of the whipping scene’s punch, despite it being much more brutal than in the original. (I will have more to say on all this in my full review for the Journal of the Civil War Era’s blog after the series is complete).
We are only one episode in, and I admit that it probably best to judge the show by its own merits, so I am not turning on it. Still, they made a remake of a classic, so comparisons to the original are inevitable. Disappointed, but staying tuned . . .