When I first saw "Roots" before its debut on ABC in 1977, I thought it was compelling television.
As the blockbuster ratings started rolling in, I knew it was also culturally important TV, if for no other reason than the way its huge crossover audience blew away the conventional wisdom among network programmers that white viewers wouldn't watch shows with black stars.
But after seeing the eight-hour remake that debuts at 9 p.m. Monday on the History, A&E and Lifetime channels, I am now convinced that "Roots" is even more than all of that. It is one of the most powerful and profound narratives ever written or told about the American experience, including anything written by any of the celebrated giants of our national literature.
For all the praise that has been given to author Alex Haley since the novel was published in 1976, this powerful reimagining of the epic family saga makes me think he has not yet been given his due for what he created.
For one thing, "Roots" takes one of the nation's oldest and most racist popular formulas, the 17th- and 18th-century captivity narrative, and stands it on its head. A form of popular culture highly successful among settlers and Europeans, the captivity narrative regularly featured storylines with white women being kidnapped and horribly abused by Native Americans. Haley flipped the script, making people of color the victims and white slave traders and owners the savages in his American version of it.
In a global sense, Haley also recast the prototypical hero quest, placing a person of color at the heart of that universal, mythic journey of separation, battle and redemption, which civilizations have told since the dawn of time.
I watched Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte, the young Mandinka warrior captured and sold into slavery, walking the same path in Africa and America as Odysseus trod in the ancient Mediterranean. Despite the controversy connected with allegations of plagiarism, still I am starting to think maybe Haley should be considered our equivalent of the Greek poet Homer.
And, maybe, "Roots" is the one epic narrative that can offer black and white Americans a shared viewing experience at this time of increasing polarization — just as it did in 1977. That, too, was a time of racial tension and backlash against gains made during the civil rights era. In 1978, the University of California Regents v. Bakke case challenging affirmative action made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
But be warned: This remake ups the savagery quotient of white slave owners over the original — and ABC's version had come under considerable criticism for its graphic violence.
The violence is so intense in this remake that it left me feeling sadness, anger and even depression.
If it is hard to watch Kunta being branded with a white-hot iron on the West African beach of his capture, it is impossible not to look away when he is lashed to a tree after being captured following his escape from a Virginia plantation. You might think he is going to be whipped, but his captor brandishes an ax and makes it clear that he intends to cut off half of Kunta's right foot so he can never run again. The amputation is then shown in grisly detail.
Equally painful to watch is Kunta tied to a pole in the middle of the plantation and flogged relentlessly for refusing to call out — and thereby publicly accept — the slave name, Toby, that was given to him by his master's wife.
But each sequence of such graphic violence is redeemed by the storytelling.
Kunta's amputation becomes the narrative engine of several subsequent acts in the drama. He gives in to sickness and despair after being maimed, and then is brought back by the care and strength of Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), a mentor, and Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who will become his wife. This is classic hero quest stuff, with the hero near defeat and death before rallying — often with the aid of a helper or guide.
One of the most moving moments in the production comes after Kunta's savage flogging. Viewers see the event largely through the eyes of Fiddler, an older slave who is dressed by the master's wife in the hand-me-downs of a gentleman to play the violin at social gatherings for white plantation society.
Fiddler, who is played with tenderness and wisdom by Whitaker, unties the ravaged body of Kunta from the pole and holds him in his arms as the two sit in the dust and blood at the base of the pole.
"It don't matter what the master calls you," he says tearfully into the ear of a semiconscious Kunta. "You kept your true name inside. This ain't your home. But it's where you got to be now."
Whitaker is the gold standard of TV miniseries acting in this role, and the script is nuanced enough to include a minor theme of Fiddler reimagining his own identity through the bond he forms with the headstrong young slave he comes to think of as his "warrior son." In the hero quest playbook, Fiddler is to Kunta what Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi was to Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars," or Merlin was to young Arthur in "The Once and Future King." And Whitaker is in the first rank of all the great performers who have inhabited those roles.
The violence inflicted on slaves in the 1977 version of "Roots" was cited by some analysts as the very reason white audiences watched the miniseries in record-breaking numbers. In short, the assertion was that they enjoyed seeing blacks mistreated and maimed.
If that sounds outrageous, it is not that far removed from questions some cultural critics have raised about the citizen-made videos of black men being subdued or killed by police in recent years. Part of the discussion here includes the suggestion that some viewers take a voyeuristic pleasure in the "spectacle" of black death or black bodies being broken.
There is no way to legitimately judge that claim without sitting down with each viewer and trying to assess what meaning she or he makes of the images. Each of us interacts with on-screen images in a unique way based on our personal histories.
But I do know that if you are going to try to accurately reflect the horrors of slavery and debunk generations of "Gone with the Wind" misinformation about the institution, then you need to show the brutality.
In the end, perhaps the greatest storytelling triumph of "Roots" is that Haley wrapped all of it, from the inverted captivity narrative to the Kunta Kinte hero quest, in the structure of a family saga. "Roots" is essentially a cosmic version of the kinds of stories told at family gatherings about those who came before us, particularly if our ancestors came or were brought here from another part of the world. The full title of the novel was, after all, "Roots: The Saga of an American Family."
Captivity narratives might have been the first American-born best-seller, but there is nothing more popular in our popular culture than family. We have family sitcoms, family dramas, reality TV families like the Kardashians, and game shows called "Family Feud" and "Family Double Dare." The value of family is one of the few things in our culture on which there is still widespread agreement.
In a storytelling sense, the emphasis on family and ancestors allows for some magical realism, in which Kunta's father or mother can appear to him with words of guidance at key points on his journey. It also allows the saga to continue through subsequent generations, with descendants of Kunta Kinte accomplishing the last leg of the hero quest for him: the return to the West African world from which he was torn.
I am not a big fan of remakes. But this is a big-time commitment to retelling one of our core national narratives with passion and care.
Forty years since its debut, the narrative retains its potency. For all the progress we sometimes think we've made, we still have much to learn from "Roots."
Bonus: Read my take on the impact of the original "Roots."
"Roots" airs 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday on the History, A&E and Lifetime channels.