Did you watch the 2016 remake of Roots, the classic story about one enslaved family and its descendants? The original aired in 1977 and is based on a semi-fictional, semi-truthful book by Alex Haley. A new version was released by The History Channel, and I’ve watched part 1. I thought since the various episodes will cover different eras, it would be interesting to do a multi-part series on each.
In some ways it’s probably good that I haven’t seen the original 1977 version, because I was able to watch this with fresh eyes. On the other hand, the 1970s version is iconic, and it would probably be interesting to compare the two. But here you go nonetheless.
Roots: Episode 1
Episode 1 is set in the 1760s and tells the story of Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka man from the Gambia who is trained to be a warrior, then captured, enslaved, shipped to Virginia, and enslaved on a plantation.
Overall, I thought the production was really good. The cast is excellent, particularly Malachi Kirby as Kunta. His performance is gripping, and (special bonus) he’s quite easy on the eyes.
You can tell that a lot of research (and money) went into the production. I really appreciated that the episode spent a good deal of time setting up Kunta’s world in the Gambia. Instead of a vague “we’re sitting in the dirt in the jungle” that you might normally get, you see that he comes from a complex society and lives in a major city, practices Islam, and trains to be a warrior. And while it’s minor, I really liked that they touched on the possibility that Kunta might go to the huge and significant city of Timbuktu to study at one of the universities there. Many still think of Africa as totally undeveloped, and I think it’s important to convey information about how sophisticated these societies were during this period.
Furthermore, on an emotional level, the fact that they’ve set up Kunta’s world and family makes it all the more wrenching when he’s ripped away from it. And the story gets into the issue of intra-tribal slavery, which is an important factor for why the slave trade exists at all — and compares how slavery worked in West Africa vs. the American colonies.
There’s an interesting interview with historian Matthew Delmont over at Mother Jones, in which he talks about the first episode of Roots, comparing it to the 1977 version and getting into the history. In general, he gives a positive review to the 2016 Roots for incorporating current research, although also gets into the politics of this:
The Africans enslaving Africans is an important difference. In the original version, there were blacks who helped the European slave catchers, but here it was presented more as part of conflict among tribes within the Gambia (and other parts of Africa) that led to the capture and sale of slaves. I’m not sure what I think about this. This representation is more historically accurate, but the “blacks capturing blacks” is one of the points people fall back to when they want to make it seem like slavery wasn’t that bad. We Watched “Roots” With a “Roots” Expert
Costumes in Roots: Part 1
So here’s the problem: I don’t know 18th-century West African dress. I reached out on social media hoping to find someone who did who’d be willing to comment, but no dice. So unfortunately I’m unable to comment on the historical accuracy (or lack thereof) in terms of costumes in the first half of the episode!
I can tell you that a lot of work went into the costumes, which were designed by Ruth E. Carter (Amistad, Selma) and Diana Cilliers (Women in Love, The Red Tent). It looks like Cilliers designed the costumes for the Africa portion of episode 1, while Carter designed all of the American episodes (including the second half of part 1).
There’s a decent amount of information from Carter about her work on this episode in this Indiewire article:
“We knew from the beginning that because they harvested indigo in the Juffure village in Africa that they would have this rich blue, and when I saw that Diane Sellers [Cilliers], who did the South African portion, was using the blue, I decided to keep the blue going. So when we get to Annapolis and the Lord Ligonier slave ship lands, we did something called a ‘scramble.’ It’s not something you’ve seen in cinema before. It’s not just a slave auction but it’s a fact that when a ship came in with wounded, battered slaves, they were sold wholesale.
“So a plantation owner might come in, tie some sheets together and rope off four or five slaves that he wanted to buy. And we did that with Kunta Kinte. And because they arrived on the Lord Ligonier basically naked, I thought they’re just going to be handed leggings and shoes with no laces. And the slaves on the Waller plantation in 1750 had clothes made from yardage purchased in London or homespun there. They should have rudimentary clothing and there was a cabin designated as the place where fabric would be spun and clothing made.”
Without much documentation of what they looked like in 1750, Carter used costume research for the period to weave a narrative using wardrobe as a through line.
There were very rudimentary tops and pantalones for the men working in the field made out of rough fabric. But Carter’s research also indicated that later on the slaves were given fancier cloth from which several items would be made. “They were only given one outfit for the whole year,” Carter said. “I called it wash and wear because they were constantly working and constantly washing. And at Christmas in Virginia, when it got a little colder, the plantation owners would get their field slaves shoes. Children wore a toe shirt [??] until they were 12.” How They Remade ‘Roots’ Through Costume and Score
And you can get a sense of the (surprisingly large) budget and huge scope of the production in this video interview from Essence, which is really worth a watch!
The most important characters in the film are, of course, Kunta and, when he gets to the American colonies, the other enslaved people. In general, I liked what I saw on these characters in Africa (without being able to comment on whether or not this is accurate to the period/location):
And I liked what I saw on the slaves in Virginia:
And now, the white characters. Any discussion of them is something of a nitpick, given that they are very much minor to the story (although important). In general, I liked the menswear:
The problem came with the owner’s wife, Elizabeth, who wore a WHOLE bunch of WTF. Now, on the one hand, I don’t want to freak out about this. The production values on this show are otherwise really good, and the story and acting are compelling. On the other hand, the filmmakers were clearly emphasizing historical accuracy, so I’m confused as to why Elizabeth generally looks like she’s in 186-something (or in a bad play). I’d say she suffers from Leading Lady Syndrome, where the lead actress needs to be “modern” pretty and different from everyone else, except her character doesn’t have a big enough part to warrant such treatment.
Let’s start with her first outfit, a white-ish jacket and skirt; the skirt would work in a lot of eras, so I’ll let it slide, but the jacket is 1840s-ish.
Next up, we have Elizabeth’s riding habit, which didn’t suck. BUT HER HAIR.
Then there was her party “robe à la française,” which was very Disney princess:
Some of the female extras looked okay:
But then whoever did this extra’s hair clearly thought they were on the set of an E.M. Forster adaptation:
And then there’s Elizabeth’s final red dress, which was actually 18th-century-esque even if it was crappy:
All this being said, the photos I’ve seen from future episodes look like things are going to improve in terms of upper-class dress, so I have my fingers crossed! And hey, I like a good “wtf is going on with that dress/hair” chuckle as much as the next snarker.
Have you watched the new Roots? What did you think of episode 1?