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'Roots' re-imagining grippingly conveys history in a tale of family devotion and perseverance

'Roots' re-imagining grippingly conveys history in a tale of family devotion and perseverance
Fiddler (Forest Whitaker), left, and Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) talk in the re-imagining of "Roots." (Steve Dietl/History)

With a splendid cast both well- and little-known, History's new version of "Roots," which premieres Monday night, is the very model of a modern major miniseries.

Billed as a "re-imagining," it follows the same characters and timeline as the iconic ABC miniseries but has been reconfigured (four two-hour episodes, each filmed separately under a different director), multi-platformed (it will air simultaneously on History, A&E and Lifetime) and historically fine-tuned.

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Though sleeker and more graphically brutal than its ancestor, "Roots" remains a celebration of resistance through survival.

More important, it reminds us precisely what all the fuss was about the first time around.

And that's important; sometimes the success of a creative work can overwhelm its real significance.

Over the years, the 1977 miniseries has come to stand for many things. A surprise hit that enthralled the nation, "Roots" defined the notion of a "television event," with more than 100 million people watching the final episode.

Playing out over eight successive nights, it turned the miniseries, previously an occasional oddity, into a popular American art form.

Its success helped identify the historically overlooked black audience while disproving the notion that white viewers were interested only in stories about white people.

And though some complained about certain characters being softened, "Roots" also provided a stinging, and long overdue, antidote to the "Tara's Theme" sentimentality that still hung over the early history of the American South.

All of which was, and is, very important. Just not as important as the thing itself: a chronicle of American slavery told by four generations of slaves.

That is most certainly a story worth retelling, especially now. Amid all the heated conversations about racism, demographically specific anger and national identity, we need to be reminded of our actual history, which, on civilizations' timeline, occurred the day before yesterday.

This "Roots" begins with some of its best "re-imagining" — an extended look at Kunta Kinte's (Malachi Kirby) life in West Africa as he trains to be a Mandinka warrior.

Though inter-tribal hostilities, enflamed by the slave trade, threaten the area, Kunta's father (Babs Olusanmokun) holds fiercely to Mandinka traditions of faith and family, which means he openly opposes those tribes who sell captives to white slavers, but also Kunta's dream of life in the larger world.

Though Kunta rebels against his father, it is those values that sustain him after he is sold into slavery, and that dream becomes a living nightmare.

Monday's first episode follows his journey from Africa to a plantation in Virginia. Stirring moments of outright rebellion — captives singing plans to take the ship even as the slavers force them to dance; Kunta, calling to the field slaves to help after he briefly frees himself — give way to a more seething fury.  Kunta is put in the care of the seemingly "assimilated" slave Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) who, because he can play violin, is treated slightly better than the field slaves.

But as Fiddler attempts to tame Kunta, Kunta re-animates Fiddler; the desire to pass on the essential nature of the Mandinka warrior fuels the series. A lullaby becomes one of the threads connecting the generations to their original home, as does a naming ceremony and a necklace of beads.

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But most important is the storytelling itself. Kunta tells stories of his homeland; his children and grandchildren tell stories of him (which makes the notion of a remake symbolically fitting).

As in the original, "Roots" follows Kunta's lineage; in the second episode, we meet his daughter Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose), who also is brutally broken until she manages to rebuild herself. She, in turn, fights to keep the Mandinka spirit alive in her son, Chicken George (Rege Jean-Page); his son, Tom (Sedale Threatt Jr.) lives to see emancipation and to pass on the story of Kunta Kinte.

With television more graphic than ever, the grim realities of slavery — from the crowding of the slave ships to the horrors of rape and torture — are even more disturbing. But for all its righteous refusal to sentimentalize slavery for even one moment, "Roots" is not a polemic; it's a very human drama, with deep belief in the ability of love, family and personal courage to transcend even the most brutal circumstance, even the most painful history.

'Roots'

Where: A&E, History Channel, Lifetime

When: 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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