Why your parents watched Roots on TV – and why you should too

Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in the remake of the Roots TV series.
Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in the remake of the Roots TV series.
Image: Supplied

SPONSORED | In 1977, the original Roots became the most watched miniseries in history, drawing audiences of more than 100-million people – a whopping figure considering the entire US population was only 220-million at the time.

Both the original and the 2016 remake follow five generations of the family of Kunta Kinte (played by Malachi Kirby), from being captured in Africa and forced to live as slaves to the birth of the first born-free child in Kunta’s American family.

South African actress Nokuthula Ledwaba, who shines in her role as Kinte’s mother, said in an interview: “I first watched Roots in 1990 when I was in primary school. My mom brought a version from the UK and we watched it together as a family. My mom was an activist, so it was a history lesson every time!”

Here’s why the original was so popular and why you should watch the 2016 remake, which is soon playing on ShowMax:

1. It was the first TV show about slavery

In 1977, Americans had never seen slavery on TV before. They had read about it in books and knew about its horrors in theory but had not seen depicted on screen the gruesome conditions on slave ships or slavery’s many other cruelties – killing slaves who tried to escape, selling slaves to owners across the country almost on a whim, and worse. It was groundbreaking because it was the most honest account of slavery seen on TV up to that time.

Since then, we’ve seen slavery depicted in films such as Amistadand The Help, but that doesn’t mean Roots’ unflinching account of the brutality that slave families suffered is any less upsetting to watch.

2. It had scenes that were impossible to forget

The story starts with Kunta Kinte, a man from Gambia who is sold into slavery by a rival tribe. He travels by slave ship to America, where he is sold to the owner of a plantation in the Colony of Virginia. He is then forced to adopt a new name, “Toby”, but when he refuses, the overseer whips him until he agrees, erasing his real identity.

The whipping scene was one that many viewers of the original would never forget. In the 2016 version, the scene is even more terrifying because it is gorier – bringing the true horrors of slavery to vivid life.

3. It had an outstanding cast

In the original, a well-known white actor, Ed Asner, appears early on as the captain of the slave ship. The show’s writers thought white audiences wouldn’t stay interested if there were no white characters introduced in the opening scenes.

The remake doesn’t rely on these sorts of attempts at all, and the cast is brilliant: Kirby is the edgy Kunta Kinte and Forest Whitaker is Fiddler, an older slave who takes Kunta under his wing.

4. The story brings slavery to life in a touching and unforgettable way

As the story goes on, the Kinte family grows and is torn apart, always a victim of the slave system. The large-scale and long-running human rights abuse that was slavery is now taught in schools and laid out in history books, but it is shows like Rootsthat bring home the real suffering.

Watch the 2016 remake of the miniseries Roots and enjoy a story filled with beauty, love, hope, pride, passion and a fierce determination to be free.

The 2016 version of this classic miniseries is launching on ShowMax on December 8.

Go to www.showmax.com to sign up for a 14-day free trial and start watching Roots.

This article was paid for by ShowMax.