Spring 2016

New Roots

Although Roots was a massive hit and cultural milestone when it was first broadcast in 1977, the saga of an African-American family from slavery to modern times was ready for a more contemporary treatment by a new generation of directors.


The New World: Thomas Carter brought his experience growing up in a segregated South to directing the Roots reboot. (Photo: Steve Dietl)

Thomas Carter still recalls watching Roots, riveted, almost 40 years ago. The 1977 television miniseries, which soared in ratings and awards despite the network’s low expectations, told the somber and horrific story of African-American slavery through the eyes of one particular family enslaved through multiple generations. For its legions of viewers, including Carter, the series was revelatory and gut-wrenching.

So when Carter was invited to be one of four directors to participate in a remake, which airs this spring on the History Channel, he felt honored and more than a little beholden. But he and the other directors also recognized it as a golden opportunity to retell an epic saga with even greater veracity and in a contemporary cinematographic style that would resonate with younger viewers.

"If you look at the original," he says, "it has an iconic place. But there are many things we felt we could deepen and make richer."

The four directors—Carter, Mario Van Peebles, Phillip Noyce, and Bruce Beresford—dove into their episodes with anthropological zeal. Building on the Alex Haley novel on which the original series was based, they spliced in additional history and period detail and cultural nuances concerning the slave experience. Unlike the original, they made no attempt to soften the material to make it more palatable to a white audience.

Gone was the slave ship captain with the guilty conscience. In came the Civil War Battle of Fort Pillow, during which many African- American Union soldiers were massacred while trying to surrender. Beresford, who tackled the final episode, rigged up that battle scene in all its gory detail. Noyce, who took on the first episode, presented Juffure, the Gambian village where the Roots story begins, as the larger and more sophisticated village it truly was, shooting that episode in four South African locations.

The directors also approached the miniseries as though it weren’t a series. With the blessings of the producers, they didn’t marry their four two-hour episodes to a stylistic template the way the original eight episodes were produced. There was no effort to establish a continuity beyond a few shared elements, including original music (by Questlove) and a Kinte family ritual that is passed on to each succeeding generation.

"We leaned more toward the feature process," says executive producer Mark Wolper, whose father, David L. Wolper, produced the original Roots. "Four distinct directors. Four distinct points of view."

So intent were the producers on giving the directors the utmost independence in molding their individual episodes that the directors were not once brought together to discuss a look and feel for the series. They weren’t asked to watch the original series. They weren’t required to read one another’s scripts. "We didn’t tell them, here’s the style. Or no dollies. Or this is the color palette," Wolper says. "We just said, ‘Go for it. Make the film you want.’"

Cultural Truths: Mario Van Peebles was committed to showing the reality of how slaves lived in America. (Photo: Michele Short)

Roots follows several generations of an enslaved family as they struggle to survive their harsh circumstances. The story begins with a young man, Kunta Kinte, who is snatched from his African village by slave traders, shipped to America, and sold to the highest bidder. He endures agonizing barbarity, including chains, whippings, the sale of his child, and draconian field work. He even loses part of one foot, chopped off by bounty hunters after he tries to escape.

"I’d be amazed, aghast, and confused by the casual cruelty and hypocrisy," Carter says. "There were times when I would stop and go, ‘I can’t believe this. How could one human being do this to another?’"

Carter’s episode is the third in the series. But it was the first to be shot, simply because that script was first out of the gate. In every case, the scripts were altered to support the directors’ visions. Carter, for instance, wanted to emphasize the nature of the sexual abuse to which female slaves were subjected by their slave masters, who impregnated them and then enslaved or sold off their biracial children.

Carter, therefore, designed his opening to feature the character Kizzy (Kinte’s now-grown daughter) as she is being raped by her owner. It’s not a violent rape; Kizzy doesn’t resist. She barely murmurs when her owner speaks to her. After he leaves, she vigorously washes between her legs, then goes on with her day. Viewers are left with no doubt, however, that it was not consensual and that she endures this on a regular basis.

"There was great discussion and debate about whether to do it," says Carter, who calibrated the scene shot by shot. "I championed it because I felt it was something we had not seen before, but it was a fact of life."

He also fastidiously staged it with radiant light that seeps in from the cracks of the rough-hewn wooden shack where Kizzy and her child (the son of her owner) reside. The arresting luminosity contrasts with the dark context of what’s happening to her. "It’s almost like a crucifixion at dawn," says Carter, who also wanted the lighting to force viewers to experience, in a palpable way, her crude lifestyle. She lives in a home with dirt floors and no insulation to protect her from blazing heat or cold. Chickens squawk and pigs squeal outside her door, emphasizing that she doesn’t live far from the farm animals, or much better. "I tried to make it feel very real," he says.

For the entire miniseries, the locations, props, and costumes were critical in replicating how slaves lived in America. Van Peebles says he was constantly trekking over to the wardrobe department to sit with costume designer Ruth Carter. "We would talk about colors and fabrics and what I wanted to achieve."

Van Peebles made sure that other details were also scrupulously bona fide. Whatever crops were shown, for instance, had to have been farmed in that particular period and place. He engaged farming experts to provide tutorials to the extras portraying field hands. He had additional training for those actors who operated horse-driven wagons. Forest Whitaker, who portrayed Fiddler, was taught to proficiently mimic the finger work of certain fiddle tunes. "We had dialect coaches," Van Peebles says. "All of it had to work."

Getting the language subtleties down wasn’t as simple as perfecting a Southern drawl, Carter says. America was fast evolving; many characters were fresh off the boat and still spewing Irish accents and the like. The scripts, he says, didn’t always reflect the kind of syntax errors that slaves were prone to at the time. So he sat down with the actors and vivisected their lines with them, he says, "to break down the dialect so it did sound like they weren’t 100 percent comfortable with the language or were not grammatically correct."

Headquartering the production in New Orleans, the directors took as much time as they wanted or could carve from their schedules to ferret out locations and oversee other prep. Carter says his preproduction lasted four to five weeks. It included scouting locations across large swaths of Mississippi and Louisiana, where restored plantations and slave quarters can still be found. (The first Roots was shot at the Disney ranch in Savannah, Georgia.) About 75 locations were put to use.

History Lesson: (top) Phillip Noyce created a more accurate rendering of the Gambian village where the Roots story begins; (bottom) Bruce Beresford directed the final episode, including a Civil War battle in which black soldiers trying to surrender are massacred. (Photos: (top) Casey Crafford/African Photo Productions; (bottom) Steve Dietl)

When it came to casting, Carter says it was important to get "real faces in the background." He says, "I found a real richness in Los Angeles," where he cast a lot of characters. What was more challenging for him was the aging. Whenever a character leapt forward in time, the hair and makeup had to reflect that. With only 23 days to shoot his episode, long waits to finesse the hair and makeup hacked away at his production time.

Sometimes two directors wanted to use the same actor or location for their episodes. "It became a race between them," Wolper says, which they joked about: "No, this director already peed on this house."

Since some characters overlapped, it was usually the director who shot first who got first pick. Carter notes with amusement that he got to choose who played Chicken George, Kizzy’s son, even though Chicken George also appears in the prior episode.

He auditioned quite a few people before zeroing in on a relative newcomer, Regé-Jean Page, a British-Zimbabwean actor who resides in London. "You’re always taking a leap of faith when casting a new person," Carter says. But Page’s lighter hue and appealing pretty-boy looks fit the part of Kizzy’s biracial son. "Which I didn’t think was true in the original with Ben Vereen," Carter says. Page also exhibited the ease and charm that Carter associated with Chicken George, nicknamed that because of his talent for training fighting cocks. "We had no idea if Regé could handle gamecocks," says Carter, who hired him after a lengthy Skype interview.

Besides directing several cockfight scenes, Carter had to stage a duel in his episode. Directing sports and action sequences, however, is something he’s done in multiple films and TV shows including Coach Carter, Swing Kids, and When the Game Stands Tall. He says the duel scene was tricky because the adversaries needed to appear inept at handling the pistols and swords. He orchestrated their bumblings with the help of stuntmen and a carefully conceived shot list. To further bolster the scene’s chaotic tenor, Carter employed handheld cameras. "I wanted it to feel real and rough around the edges."

When he shot the cockfight and cock training scenes, however, he went for a more controlled look, building a circular dolly track around the cockfighting pit and using Steadicams. He had Page work with animal wranglers, who taught him the ins and outs of handling roosters. "He didn’t work with the most ferocious birds," Carter says. "Some have spurs and can peck you. So you have to know how to handle them."

In the episode, Page appears a natural at scooping up birds and tossing them into the air—one of Chicken George’s training techniques. The cockfight scenes are a visual feast, memorable for their exemplary staging and for the seeming savagery of the birds, although none were hurt or killed.

Wolper, who was attached to the production at all times and got to observe the four directors, says they all worked differently. Some had private rehearsals. Some did table reads. Some wanted to see costumes on the actor. Others were content to look at them on hangers.

Van Peebles, for instance, conceived a scene in which Kinte is recuperating from the physical and emotional trauma of his toes getting axed off. In his half-fevered state, he hallucinates that his African parents are looking down and reaching out to him. "I said, ‘I’m going to take my time with this,’" says Van Peebles, who decided to infuse Kinte’s reveries with powerful and poignant memories of his parents and Africa.

Van Peebles boasts an impressive résumé of films and TV episodes related to the African-American experience. They include directing Baadasssss!, a biopic on his father, Melvin, and his trials as a pioneering black filmmaker; Panther (about the Black Panthers); and New Jack City. He also was in the cast of Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, which explored the story of the slave who had children fathered by Thomas Jefferson.

When Van Peebles was approached to direct part of the reboot, he says, "My first question was, why?" As he talked to Wolper and another executive producer, LeVar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in the original, he became convinced that it was the right time to do it.

Blood Sport: Carter used a circular dolly track around the cockfighting pit and a Steadicam to capture the savagery of the scenes with Chicken George. (Photo: Steve Dietl)

In getting on board with the remaking of Roots, all of the directors and producers wanted to create something that would inspire new and younger audiences to watch this crucial facet of America’s legacy. "People need to know their history," Wolper says.

Another reason for doing it, Van Peebles says, is "I wanted to show things not seen before." Van Peebles takes a passionate interest in how various liberation movements (e.g., black, women, gay, Native American) intersect. He especially wanted to demonstrate, in his episode, the inherent relationship between sexism and racism.

To that end, in one scene he situated three little girls playing with their dolls. Two of the girls are white. The third is young Kizzy. One of the white girls takes away Kizzy’s white doll and gives her a pickaninny doll (one with derogatory racial characteristics). She says it’s her God-given right to do so because she is white. The other white girl, meanwhile, switches out her female doll for a male one and says to the other white girl, "Your doll can be my wife. Go fetch my dinner."

Van Peebles, who has worked with Clint Eastwood, Francis Ford Coppola, and other formidable directors (he played Malcolm X in Michael Mann’s Ali), says he learned a technique to elicit more gravitas from young actors. During rehearsal, he reverses their roles. "So they can play it from opposite sides and see where it’s coming from," he says. That’s what he did in the doll scene. And because the script had the girls spouting variations on the N-word, he also cautioned them, "And never say that again after you leave the set."

The many realistically dismaying situations in Roots are occasionally offset by moments of joy and grace. Such as when Kinte marries sweet, maternal Belle. All the slaves on the plantation come together to dance and celebrate. As Van Peebles was conceiving various creative possibilities for how to stage it, he says, "I do this thing where I let voices come to me." He wandered over to Jackson Square in downtown New Orleans, where he relaxed into a nap. At some point, he was jogged awake by the sound of two violinists—a black husband and white wife—busking for change, playing a mélange of African and European rhythms.

"This is exactly what I want," he told himself, thinking that the meld of musical influences was accurate for his episode, set in a period when slaves were still having to keep their African musical traditions largely under wraps but were also finding ways to slip them in. "In the movie, you’ll see the man," he says, describing how he placed the male busker and his violin right into the scene. "I couldn’t use the woman. I told her, ‘Bring the baby and watch the scene.’"

Carter says it was imperative that the production include black directors. "Listen, I grew up in the segregated South. So there’s an experience I have just from knowing that, from growing up in that way."

"When I’m looking at these slaves, these people on the set, I know that these are my ancestors," he continues. "They went through and endured these pains and terrors to allow me to be here today. I’m a product of those struggles and that survival instinct. It certainly informs me and informs my directing on a cultural basis and on a personal basis. I was proud of being a part of telling that story. I think it is a story that needs to be told again and again and in whatever way we find to tell it."

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