Roots (2016): Part 1


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.

Roots (2016)

Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte. Yes please.

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.

2016 Roots

Juffure, the city in which Kunta lives in the Gambia, hosts a complex society.

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 (AmistadSelma) 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):

2016 Roots

Kunta training to be a warrior in the Gambia.

Roots (2016)

Here’s that indigo blue dye Carter mentioned above. Sometimes the men wore turbans as shown here, but not always.

2016 Roots

Jinna is a member of Kunta’s tribe. I liked that they showed the women in a variety of different dress styles, and with complex hairstyles, which I know is correct even if I’m not sure of the specifics of the styles.

And I liked what I saw on the slaves in Virginia:

Roots (2016)

Once Kunta arrives in Virginia, he meets Fiddler, an enslaved man who (obviously) plays the fiddle. They did a great job of showing how particular enslaved people might be singled out for better treatment due to their skills or job. Fiddler plays for the owner’s family and is hired out to other whites, so he wears various fancy suits AND a wig.

Roots (2016)

Meanwhile, Kunta and the other slaves are generally dressed in 18th-century-appropriate clothes that are tattered and dirty.

2016 Roots

Kunta wears an 18th-century-style shirt and waistcoat made from low-quality cloth.

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:

2016 Roots

One of my boyfriends, James Purefoy, in a nice waistcoat, breeches, and coat with cocked hat (aka tricorn).

Roots (2016)

The men’s wigs were well done in general.

2016 Roots

Another of my boyfriends, Matthew Goode, has a nice ensemble here. I like that they did the faux buttonholes on his coat, which are stitched but not slit since they’re only decorative. His hair is pretty modern…

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.

2016 Roots

I’m so confused about this. The little striped oversleeve COULD be a robe à la turque reference if I’m being generous. (We’ll come back to the hair in a minute).

2016 Roots

The skirt is acceptable, minus the annoying skirt hiking (okay, so she’s in the tobacco barn). Check out the slightly belled sleeves, which are totally 1840s.

2016 Roots

Her underblouse/chemisette thingie is VERY 19th century.

2016 Roots

More of her jacket from the back. It has little tails below the waist, but it went by too quick to screencap it.

Next up, we have Elizabeth’s riding habit, which didn’t suck. BUT HER HAIR.

2016 Roots

Brown menswear-inspired jacket with wide collar and lapels, and lighter brown skirt all check out.

2016 Roots

A bit more of the jacket.

2016 Roots

The lace underblouse looks like it came from Forever 21. It is Edwardian at best.

2016 Roots

HER HAIR. Was 1850s-early 70s in every scene. Constant center part, swooped down over the ears, sometimes a braid or something up on top, and long ringlets in back. NOT 18TH CENTURY.

Then there was her party “robe à la française,” which was very Disney princess:

2016 Roots

The bust silhouette is very dumpy and reads modern-costume, and the lace is tacky and far too long at the cuffs.

2016 Roots

The costume doesn’t look hideous in this light, I guess…

2016 Roots

And hey, they actually got the française back right!

2016 Roots

She’s sticking with the mid-19th century hair, this time adding some crappy piece of Christmas tinsel.

Some of the female extras looked okay:

2016 Roots

This lady on the right is wearing a decent robe à la française with a good torso silhouette, and her hair doesn’t suck. Why doesn’t Elizabeth get this dress and hair?

2016 Roots

This robe à la française reads a little but dumpy to me, but it could just be the fabric choice. Both ladies in front have decent hair!

2016 Roots

This pink robe à l’anglaise was nice.

2016 Roots

Awfully curvy bust silhouette, but I’ll deal.

But then whoever did this extra’s hair clearly thought they were on the set of an E.M. Forster adaptation:

2016 Roots

I don’t even know if it’s good by Gibson Girl standards.

2016 Roots

I literally LOLed.

And then there’s Elizabeth’s final red dress, which was actually 18th-century-esque even if it was crappy:

2016 Roots

Okay, you’ve got your basic 18th-century cut/silhouette, with side hoops, 3/4 sleeves, and low neckline. Check!

2016 Roots

Except someone thought it would be a good idea to put bust darts into the front of the bodice — bust darts which were clearly meant to fit over a Victorian corset and not a cone-shaped one as worn here — and therefore she has fabric nipples. Not a good look.

2016 Roots

The white lace cuffs OVER the longer red ones are clunky (they should be reversed, with the red on top), and the ribbon rosettes make me think of The Paradise .. AND HER HAIR.

2016 Roots


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?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

30 Responses

  1. MoHub

    So, the original series won an Emmy for costume design. You’ll have to do a comparison now.

    • Kendra

      Yeah, and my understanding is that part of the reason for its impact at the time was the totally novel idea of an African American being able to trace his family tree back past slavery and all the way to Africa. As a genealogy TV show nerd, I can tell you that even being able to get pre-Civil War is amazing for many African Americans.

      • Adam Lid

        I saw the original series when it first came out in 1977 and it was definitely marketed as being true and that’s the way it was spun in the media. We even devoted a week to discussing this in my high school US History class.

      • hsc

        Not long after the series aired, I was working in the Dept. of Vital Records for my state, and we were quite annoyed with the way the series gave the impression that the records were all there SOMEWHERE, as long as you found the right staffer who knew where they were kept.

        The reality was that our records were spotty at best for all people prior to WWI, because there was no requirement to centralize records. Even worse, home births attended by a “granny lady” (midwife) sometimes didn’t get recorded for years, if at all.

        So if it actually had been “marketed and sold as a work of fiction,” our lives would’ve probably been a little easier…

  2. Kathleen Norvell

    Could the “toe” shirt referred to above be “tow?” Definition of tow. 1 : short or broken fiber (as of flax, hemp, or synthetic material) that is used especially for yarn, twine, or stuffing. 2a : yarn or cloth made of tow b : a loose essentially untwisted strand of synthetic fibers. (Merriam Webster dictionary). Just sayin’.

  3. Adam Lid

    Definitely a trainwreck when it comes to Elizabeth’s wardrobe. It’s like the budget was getting thin by the time they shot her scenes.

  4. Charity

    (I spy the redhead who played Van Gough in the Doctor Who episode that broke my heart.)

    Hmm. I wonder if maybe the costume designers got so busy admiring all the FIIINE actors around, they forgot to check paintings to see what the women wore in the period?

    Hey, it would be MY excuse.

    It’s weird to get so much right, and then her… wrong.

    (This reminds me of the Show Not to be Named, but starts with TU and ends with DORS, where I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Jane Seymour showed up in a bad turquoise Ren Fair rental at least two hundred years out of date in season two.)

    I just.

    I get it, budgets are tiny on these shows, but WHY???

  5. Susan Pola

    Now, having seen the original (big ST:TNG fan and Geordie was a favourite character), I was unsure of watching this one. Now I will. The African civilisation bits look very accurate and intriguing. Also will be able to popcorn screen for Elizabeth’s meh and inaccurate costumes.
    The actor playing Kunta, Malachi Kirby, looks to be always thinking and is nice eye candy.

  6. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    The extra with the Gibson Girl hairdo actually has REALLY good hair for the whole Camille Clifford look.

    Which, of course, is not so good given it’s supposed to be 18th century.

  7. MartinL

    The story and many of the actors are great (and the actual history is of course horrible!), but the costumes do not improve in episode 2.
    Yes, most of the men´s costumes and also some of the female slave´s are ok, but upper class ladies wear: still WTF! A little girl has a PERFECT 1650s hairstyle (in the late 1790’s), and in the same decade we get a short glimpse of two rich ladies who seem to have quite nice Edwardian dresses and hair…..

    I will continue with episode 3 and cling to my hope that 19th century will be closer to home.

  8. brocadegoddess

    I find it’s really very common for movies and shows to do a bang-up job with men’s costumes (especially when there’s uniforms involved) but completely fall down when it comes to women’s and I still can’t figure out how/why this happens. Do producers/production people think audiences require women to be more “modern relatable” than men? This particular example seems especially jarring – her clothes are just SO BAD. And considering most everything else looks good to very good and that a lot of care has been taken it’s really so baffling.

    I did have a sudden thought with regards to the wonky fit of the bodice of the red dress – I’ve encountered numerous extant 18th century dresses with darts in bodice fronts from when they were re-used as late 19th c fancy dress. But someone who doesn’t specialize in the period is much less likely to pick up on alterations or even be able to recognize them at all. So perhaps actual extant 18th century dresses that have been altered could be the reason for this? If so – I definitely need to get onto publishing my PhD thesis! lol

    • Kendra

      oooo, interesting idea about the darts/fancy dress thing!

      I feel like part of the reason the men’s costumes are always so much better is that suits are more relatable to modern audiences and understandable to modern designers/makers than women’s wear usually is.

  9. brocadegoddess

    Also, I found the comment you posted re the politics of black people selling other black people into slavery as an extension of tribal warfare really interesting – and definitely very important to carefully consider. On the one hand, I absolutely 100% understand the concern about presenting this. On the other hand, I do kinda feel that people who take it as a sign that slavery was “not so bad” are people who are going to be looking for those kinds of justifications no matter what. I think what’s important about it is how it *complicates* the narrative of slavery, which I think is very important to disseminate – history is complicated and messy, because people are complicated and messy and life “back then” wasn’t actually simpler than life today. I think people who understand that there is and can never ever ever be any justification for slavery will not have that understanding diluted by knowing that the slave trade was a more complicated (and more global) affair than how it’s generally presented.

    I guess I feel like this is important in the same way as scholarship on slave clothing and material culture that shows slaves participated in the general marketplaces of the American colonies in various ways and even participated in fashion, could have money and indulge in little luxuries. I don’t see this knowledge as undermining how bad slavery was, but rather complicates the lives of slaves, shows they weren’t one-dimensional people who defined themselves solely by their slave status and actually returns agency to them as people who exerted it and made personal decisions where they could, regardless of how circumscribed their lives were.

    I hope I haven’t opened a can of worms here, that wasn’t my intent. I’m just personally very interested in narratives that reclaim the agency of typically/traditionally oppressed peoples (whether exerted for what we think is good or bad ends) for how it enriches and humanizes history.

    • Ngozi

      this Is kinda getting off topic (long time lurker here, frockflicks feel free to delete) but while I do agree with your basic premise, I feel that a nuanced conception of the transatlantic slave trade cannot and should not take place without a detailed analysis and dissection of the notions of settler colonialism and the native American genocide; capitalism; the law of property and the notion of possession; the creation of the concept of ‘race’ – the ‘black race’ and the ‘white race’ and all that that entails; racism (specifically antiblackness) and its intersection with sexism; the elasticity of the concept whiteness and all the reasons for that elasticity… etc. I could go on.

      Suffice to say, I – as a black woman in academia – remain wholly unconvinced that any attempt by white academics to do so will be useful or even accurate. This is because they largely do not see themselves as the benefactors of a physically, sexually and economically violent inheritance, they remove themselves from the narrative and refuse to see themselves reflected in the perpetrators of the worst crimes in American history.

      Further, it is inaccurate and ahistorical to attempt to place the transatlantic slave trade in a ‘global slavery’ context, because chattel slavery in the US (and the WI) was racialized and sexualised (etc. etc., see above) in a way that is unique to that time and place.

      I will add, however, that it is important to note the so-called ‘agency’ that these enslaved Africans were permitted to have, because it demonstrates the barbaric and paradoxical nature of slavery was in the US — you are owned, and yet you are permitted to own some items; you are a beast, and a degenerate, yet still sexually desired by your master; you are ugly, but still allowed to adorn yourself and be displayed with pride by your owner… on and on ad infinitum. This is simply another demonstration of how such a terrible system could be maintained and the cruel, psychological ingenuity of the white men and women who perpetuated it. Black people have not seen and do not see our lives as one-dimensional, and if anybody is to confront this belief, it is white academia in particular, and non-black people in general.

      In conclusion, any ‘reclamation of “agency”‘ and ‘complication of chattel slavery’ narrative must as far as possible, be written only by black people; any non-black person seeking to expound upon these narratives must honestly and unflinchingly examine their motives for doing so, and consider for whom they are writing and the implications of it.

      Also, another show to watch about the complex nature of the lives of the enslaved in America is Underground on WGN. I tend to shy away from such shows (I haven’t watched the new Roots), but this show is gr8. The costumes are baddd tho lol, as are some of the accents, but the story is compelling (if some of the dialogue clunky) enough for me not to care.

      • Kendra

        I agree with most of your points, when it comes to academic writing. But what about popular culture (literature, TV, etc.)? How should discussions of slavery engage the common person? Because as you probably know, most academic research doesn’t filter out beyond the academy. (Hello, fellow academic here!)

        And, wasn’t the original book of Roots written by an African American, and isn’t this production largely one created by African Americans?

        But yes, if there’s one thing Ethnic Studies classes taught me, it’s that nobody should speak for anyone else.

        • Ngozi

          Hey! Yeah, I get what you’re saying. Academic research doesn’t reach the average person.

          But any black person who has critical opinions on media will know these concepts that white people have to go to university to learn. Because you just learn these things growing up. So while a non-academic person may not know what I mean by ‘the elasticity of whiteness as a concept’ they will know what I mean if I say ‘so and so is white, but he aint WHITE-white’ – for example

          The thing I learned when I went to uni is that the stuff you learn in your ‘human rights and racial discrimination class’ is the shit you learnt at the age of 5 or 11 or 16 as a black girl, and the professor is dropping this knowledge as if he is elucidating some Profound Truths and you’re just looking around like ‘lmao is he kidding me with this shit?’ The academic research WRT black people and the ‘speaky-spokey’ vocab of academia is usually just a high class way to talk about stuff that black people have already known…

          Discussions of slavery can definitely engage the common person – if what you’re asking is ‘can they engage the common non-black person’, there are ways to bring up the concepts I mentioned in less academic ways.

          And I was only talking about this WRT the comment of brocadegoddess.

          And I just want to clarify that ‘not speaking over someone’ never means ‘not having opinions on something’ or ‘not being allowed to speak on something because you’re not 100% expert in it’ or ‘you should agree with people out of guilt that you have a Wrong Opinion (TM) and people will yell at you’

          I am only suggesting certain things that non-black people might want to bear in mind if they are truly desirous of not repeating the same mistakes non-black people continually make when writing about black people and our experiences (this is again WRT to Brocadegoddess’ comment, not the concept of black people writing ‘Roots’.)

          if ya feel me lol

  10. ladylavinia1932

    In conclusion, any ‘reclamation of “agency”‘ and ‘complication of chattel slavery’ narrative must as far as possible, be written only by black people; any non-black person seeking to expound upon these narratives must honestly and unflinchingly examine their motives for doing so, and consider for whom they are writing and the implications of it.

    Are you saying that any form of writing for a particular “group” should be written only from the perspective of that particular group?

    • Ngozi

      Hey! Nope, I am not saying that at all. I said – in regards to the enslavement of black Africans – that *as far as possible* any ‘complications of the narrative’ must be written by black people. I also said “any non-black person seeking to expound upon these narratives must honestly and unflinchingly examine their motives for doing so, and consider for whom they are writing and the implications of it.”

      Perhaps what I mean can be explained by another example. For instance, if an Englishman is seeking to write about the second class status of English women in, say, the early 19th C, then he should ‘honestly and unflinchingly examine his motives for doing so’.

      This is not to say that he should not write the book.

      He should just be aware that when men tend to write about these women, they overlook certain things that most women would be starkly aware of (for example; menstruation, the frustration of not being taken seriously, sexualised harassment, performing femininity etc. etc.) He should be aware that his perspective is limited because of being a man, and not having to take into account things that women would have had to, and still have to today.

      He should also be aware that male historians have had an unfortunate tendency to attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility of perpetuating the same systems that kept these historical women down. Has Mr. Historian asked himself – why was he chosen to write the book? Why did he find it comparatively easier to get funding? Does the fact that he wrote it, rather than a woman, lend its conclusions more weight? If so, why? Etc. etc.

      To bring this back to white people writing about slavery – this introspection rarely happens. Rarely have I read a book about slavery written by white people that hasn’t got a huge blind spot, that a black person would be extremely unlikely to have. This is simply because when you are black in a white country there are things you are acutely aware of, that white people mostly aren’t, and it’s rare that white people acknowledge this when writing about black people’s experiences. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t try, but that they should be open to the idea that until they seriously interrogate the unconscious biases they will undoubtedly have as a white person, their analysis and writing will necessarily be shallower.

      Does that answer your question?

  11. Kendra

    Yeah, I think the problem with MOST history is it gets over-simplified. Look at World War II: the Germans were evil, the Allies were noble and out to save the Jewish people… except, the Allies were far more concerned about stopping German expansion than about Jews, and they didn’t go out of their way to stop the Holocaust mid-war (for example, bombing train tracks for concentration camp transport trains). That doesn’t mean the Allies were BAD, it just means that nothing is black & white.

    • brocadegoddess

      1. I’m not American
      2. I have been aware of this for some time, it was the inclusion of it in a mainstream media production to which I was referring. Perhaps the fact that I’m not American factors into why it stuck out for me. So, yeah, possible ignorance on my part but possibly not for the reason you may be assuming.

      And really, what Kendra says is essentially the point I was trying to make, albeit perhaps clumsily.