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‘Roots' remake director on retelling Kunta Kinte’s story to a 2016 audience

Malachi Kirby plays Kunta Kinte in the new 'Roots' mini-series, airing on History channel.
Malachi Kirby plays Kunta Kinte in the new 'Roots' mini-series, airing on History channel.
Courtesy History channel

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In 1977, ABC aired the mini-series "Roots" based on the Alex Haley novel of the same name.

It was an overwhelming success. Nine Emmy wins, a Golden Globe and a Peabody. The finale is still the 3rd highest-rated TV episode in history and the 2nd most watched series finale ever. David Wolper was executive producer of the series, which starred LeVar Burton as a young Kunta Kinte. 

Fast-forward four decades, and we've got a remake.

Roots trailer

The 2016 "Roots" will air on the History channel and run four consecutive nights. It'll star Forest Whitaker and Laurence Fishburne as well as Malachi Kirby as Kunte Kinte. In a unique turn, each night has a different director. 

A Martinez started off the conversation with Van Peebles by asking:

Considering how successful and iconic the original was, why would anyone take on the remaking of "Roots"?

"That was my questions when they contacted me about doing it. And then, we started talking about music and Mark Walpert and LeVar Burton, who were both talking to me about the project, that the first 'Roots' when you re-watch it is sort of like music that doesn't speak to this next generation.

So, the idea was, could we retell 'Roots' now with so much more historical research done, and all this history done, so it's going to be much more accurate in a real cinematic way. "

On the impact of the original "Roots"

"I think 'Roots' was the first time I really saw in television, what it could do and I think it was the first time that America saw history, not from the colonizer's point of view and that was interesting. You know, typically dominant culture inserts itself in a dominant way cinematically, so for example Karate kid...won't get to be Asian, he'll be Ralph Macchio. Heavyweight champs look like Ali and Tyson, Hollywood makes them look more like Stallone. 'Dances with Wolves' won't star a Native American it stars someone white."

On filming difficult scenes:

"There were days that I went home and thought deeply about what we as human beings are willing to do to each other...We're capable of harming each other, we're also capable of great grace. But what I find interesting when you really look at our history in America and you look at it straight in the eye, like you'll do when you see this 'Roots' series, you see a lot of echoes that -- past becomes prologue, history doesn't always repeat itself but it does rhyme. And there's some rhyming to it today and I think to really understand the today you've got to understand the yesterday."

The remake of "Roots" begins airing Monday, May 30th,  Memorial Day, at 9 p.m. on the History Channel, and it will run for 4 consecutive nights. 

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.

As a warning, during our conversation we play some clips from the film that are audibly graphic.