The Changed Political Message of Alex Haley’s Roots Novel Remake

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Alex Haley’s Roots novel and the subsequent 1977 miniseries shocked the world upon its premiere on network television because of its impactful and groundbreaking display of slavery and the African-American experience. Contrary to common misconception, the series displayed the horrors and triumphs of a family having experienced slavery and freedom over the course of 100 years. The series did not go without its critics, highlighting inaccuracies, an enhanced focus on white individuals, and melodrama. The need to correct these issues, as well as the current political climate, became the basis for the A&E Network’s 2016 four-part remake of the series.

However, Roots will always play a controversial role in its depictions of slavery, black agency or lack thereof, and its basis in fiction over truth. The history behind the novel plays a role in the exploration of slave history and the line between fact and fiction. From his grandmother, Haley learned several words in an unknown African language, one being “Kunta”, his ancestors’ first name. Haley then subsequently engaged in research, off of this basic information and through trips to Gambia, to uncover his family history. On one trip to Gambia in 1966, out of 25 visits, he encountered a griot, an official storyteller, whose occupation became the regurgitation and preservation of a family’s oral history. Haley learned from the griot, Kebba Kanga Fofana, “both a Kinte genealogy and the story of how 16 year old Kunta Kinte had disappeared from the village of Juffure one morning in 1767 never to return, presumably the victim of slavers.”

However, information had been discovered that the griot knew of Haley’s arrival and planned his story to fit his perceived account and that his role as a “griot” came illegally, as he did not receive this status as local villagers felt he lacked the scholarship to do so. Morecover, the authenticity of Haley’s research and writing came into question in 1978. Although Haley intended for the novel to not be taken as complete fact, especially given the drama and the intensity, the novel presents itself in such a manner in which the audience becomes fully enveloped into this world. A lawsuit involving plagiarism between Roots and Harold Courlander’s The African, published in 1967, did little to put his case in his favor; as Courlander attested in court that passages from Roots matched The African, Haley denied prior knowledge of the book. The outcome of the case required Haley to pay approximately $650, 000, $2. 5 million when adjusted for inflation. The line between fact and fiction can be deciphered and ultimately accepted, however the resistance to admit fault hinders the novel and later miniseries’ intentions.

At the time of publication, the United States experienced a plethora of tense moments, memorialized in public knowledge and then in art forms. The idea of historically based tv programming became increasingly popular during the 1970’s as viewers tuned into watch the family drama in historical times as escapism, but often reflected the issues of the present. At the time, the Civil Rights movement had ignited black culture and the desire to highlight the accomplishments of African-Americans who had enhanced their power and their stature in life, even as blacks in society struggled for full equality, not just under the law. Meanwhile, the tensions caused by the Vietnam conflict, given the outbreak of protest and anti-war sentiment, led viewers to partake in these displays of past history. Americans became connected to these individuals through their family drama, narrative formation, and ‘distance’ from the current era. In 1974, ABC announced the development of “Novels-For-Television” as perceived that novels were a higher art form, hoping to increase the level of culture reflected on television. Yet these series often reflected modern and grim issues, rather than elegance.

An adapted miniseries of Laura Ingalls Wilder's’ Little House on the Prairie, the history of a white prairie family in the 1870’s, performed well. It “presented itself as historically accurate”, but also included “ “relevant” storylines [that] dealt with issues that were relatable to contemporary audiences. ” One storyline follows a Civil War veteran unable to reintegrate into society, given a morphine addiction and PTSD, which caused him to commit suicide. This represents a direct parallel to the struggles faced by Vietnam veterans on the homefront during the show’s premiere but also a dark concept for family television. While viewers observed on the small screen a white family’s struggles, others found a penchant desire to actively engage in history as “activity [blossomed] in other areas of nostalgia culture: from dressing in period and period-inspired clothing, to participating in some of the many reenactments celebrating the Bicentennial, to new history exhibition that offered interactive displays. ” Roots’ impact as a novel and other historical programs engaged and allowed others to connect to their genealogy and own family history. Although viewers were watching these historical-based dramas, with some difficult themes, the production and creation of Roots caused some hesitation. Given the tensions of the time period and the growing resistance to change, producers feared that Americans would not invest their time into a series which reflects and acknowledges a grim period of American history. The producers feared that the white population, the overwhelming majority of viewers, would not engage or find important the portrayal of an African-American family on screen, especially as white characters appeared cold, ruthless, and even murderous. The hesitancy of ABC studios to go forth with the project does little to establish that African-Americans and their stories are important and worth investing in. Other than as simply a cultural institution, the series had been pitched as an academic source and Roots producers hoped to place a message prior to the show citing its historical nature and the accuracy which had not been diminished by the portrayals.

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Even with this seemingly accurate and haunting portrayal of the antebellum period and post war, the producers and writers made decisions which would change and ferment the series as a ‘family’ event. The network decided to not only cast popular white actors, but those who had portrayed family friendly roles as a cue to the audience that they could identify with these characters, from a distant and supposedly ‘bygone’ era. Many of the white actors, while having minimal roles in the show, featured prominently in the advertisements. Edward Asner, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, portrayed a slave ship captain named Captain Davies. His character appeared within 12 minutes of running time, demonstrating uneasiness about the prospect of carrying slaves on as cargo, citing that he is a Christian man. This portrayal not only reflected the show’s need to pivot and adjust the view for the audience, but it showed the slaves as foolish and unaware. The maltreatment they received goes unnoticed because their masters are seemingly good individuals and are protecting their slaves. Likewise, the series portrays these characters and their home in a certain light. The shooting location for Gambia took place in Georgia, as Gambia appeared as a nondescript, very primitive portrayal of an African village. Kunta Kinte’s character, the leading player, acted as a naive and harmless individual, who even as a warrior, did not possess the grit and anger. As an example, he apologized profusely and feared a member of a local village, portrayed in a cameo by then popular actor O. J. Simpson. Kunta Kinte’s character who although tried to appear strong, displayed weakness, instead. His character gave a sense of ‘comfort’ for the white audience, as they did not fear him. The series showed the Civil War in the terms of the white narrative. It does not include any scenes of the war and focuses on the Confederate secession from the Union and then jump cuts to the surrender at Appomattox. The decision to display the surrender, focusing on Robert E Lee’s defeat, rather than the Union victory portrays the war from a Southern perspective, focusing on the Lost Cause narrative during Reconstruction. While the slaves celebrate freedom, some slaves do not acknowledge the element of freedom and appear ignorant. Likewise, it appears that the Confederacy's defeat freed the slaves, rather than the Union’s triumph over the slaveholding society of the South or the slaves’ ability to achieve freedom. Although the first time an African-American family was at the helm of a major television event, Roots faltered in its portrayal.

The series attempted to display to a particular audience, for the first time, the effects of slavery and the relationships between slaves. This portrayal, however, does not hold up in the present day. The idea to remake the series in 2016, for A&E Network, came from an unsuccessful attempt by one of the original producers’ sons in showing his teenage son the original series. The length of the series and the focus on melodrama as well as outdated costuming, cinematography, and new historical information allowed the producers to take on the iconic Roots for the current generation. The Roots team desired that they would only create the series if it would improve upon and enhance, rather than detract, from what had been previously done, determining that not only the historical importance of the series remained intact, but that the historical information could be corrected and altered properly. The issue stemmed from the original discussion of Roots being historically accurate or its role as a fictional piece. Fiction has its place as media, to show a time period with focus more on story than historical premise, but the marketing and dilemmas that occured with it, caused controversy. This new series enlisted historians to stand on set and act as consultants to discover the true origins of the Kinte family’s history. The series also hoped to focus more on black agency. While much of the criticism from the new series comes from this decision to enhance the violence, action, and drama for today’s audience, the adjustments made helped to improve upon the historical nature and reflect upon the current era. The remake made significant strides in how the representation of African-Americans, specifically in slave narratives, are demonstrated. Prior to the 1977 series, representations of African-Americans came in the form of side characters who often came off comical or violent, stereotypical representations of blacks.

By 2016, African-Americans have a greater presence in television and film roles, in shows such as Black-ish. The consistent theme running through the content and conversation was how to appeal to the “Black Lives Matter” era and tackle head on these difficult conversations about race which have not improved significantly since the Civil War Era. The Roots remake made significant changes in response to the political climate and historical updates. As a change, the Kamby Bolongo, in Gambia, transitioned from an indistinguishable African village to a thriving trading market. Kunta Kinte, appeared wealthy, rather than as a peasant farmer, and although Kunta trained to become a warrior, he hoped to study at university in Timbuktu. Kunta’s family represented the strong and intense bond of family but also the power of masculinity and the human spirit. As Kunta trained to be a warrior, he learned how to ride a wild horse and learned about aggression and protection of one’s body and their community. This change in character shows how the times have changed and the representation of black characters have changed. The remake, with these assertive characters, demonstrated a greater black presence and did not show white individuals for a fifty minute period. Even the roles of Fiddler and Chicken George, characters who aimed to be in the good graces of the white masters they served, appeared strong. Fiddler, in charge of instructing Kunta in American versus his African traditions, displayed sympathy for Kunta as he refused to accept his new name of “Toby” and his position as a slave versus a warrior.

While Fiddler received equal positioning as the white overseer, Fiddler could not stop Kunta’s whipping. Despite this, when white men attacked them while out in the woods, Fiddler sacrificed himself for Kunta and his newborn child, stopping the robbers but dying in the process. This act of bravery, not shown in the original, as he died a quiet death instead, shows the power of the slaves. Similarly, Chicken George, the illegitimate child of his mother Kizzy and his master Tom Lea, became the favorite and benevolent ‘son’ of Tom Lea and plays to his best interests, even while also being his property. George adores his master and Tom even regards them as “best friends”. However, after Tom Lea lost a chicken fighting bet, and sold George to England in exchange, George attacked him physically, citing him as a coward and a lowlife. While these characters appear in the original release, the remake brought new strength and resolve to these characters, as demonstrated by the actors portraying them. In this new climate, where black men are not seen as inferior or in need of special treatment to allow for audiences to feel empathy for them, these characters come to life as full humans. The female roles of Roots received a different interpretation as well. In the original series, the women of the story are seen and not often heard from; when present, the series does focus on mainly white women. Missy Anne, the daughter of the plantation owner, taught Kizzy how to read and write. When Noah, an escaping slave, received help from Kizzy, by forging a traveling pass, her master sells her to another plantation. Missy Anne appears angry and hurt that her childhood ‘friend’ would hurt her in such a manner.

The remade story’s focus shifts to the black female characters as these women are also courageous and brave, but suffering under a system which represses them. Belle, who acts as Kunta’s caretaker, portrays an atypical domestic woman as she tries to help him recover after his foot is severed from an escape attempt, but once Kunta refuses care, Belle does not desire to continue to help him. Belle remarks on Kunta’s status as a warrior, as Kunta acts childish and as if his life had little purpose. Belle does not allow him to treat her as a slave, contrasting the fact that although she lives under her master’s rule, she does not let another man, let alone a fellow slave, have power over her. She tosses his crutch outside and refuses to help him, letting him not only come to terms with his own situation, but have her as an authority over him. Belle, in the original, albeit strong did not display this same type of grit and power, as women were only recently returning to the public sphere in the workplace and on the forefront of social change. Similarly, Kizzy refused to acknowledge and cooperate with Tom, giving her a sense of meaning and determination, as she lost some sense of self as her child did not come from love, but oppression and collusion. Kizzy tried to protect her son from Tom, but also protect herself from the pain, showing strength in a difficult time. The 2016 remake also acknowledged African-American participation in the Civil War, which is not recognized in the original. The Civil War, the seminal event in African-American history and the subsequent freedom from slavery, shows that not only today do we accept the African-Americans fought for their own freedom and actively participated, but that the war was fought for the purposes of preserving slavery in the South. As mentioned, the original focuses on the Confederate decision to “fight Yankees” and their ‘suffering’ after the war, with a reading of the surrender by Robert E. Lee, and the aftermath.

The remake’s adaptation not only focused on the effects of the Civil War but African-Americans’ service in the war and the brutality they experienced. The producers focused on the Battle of Fort Pillow, when Confederate soldiers slaughtered African-American troops and captured whites as prisoners of war. Much like today, there are African-Americans dying and suffering for their cause. Likewise, the battle does not receive as much attention as Gettysburg or Antietam, showing that African-Americans’ contributions go unacknowledged. This also shows the unfair nature of the war, where the men are not ‘capable’ enough to receive weaponry. These men fought bravely, as Chicken George and Cyrus, a new character, return with injuries but also pride. Roots for 2016 hoped to correct the issues and inaccuracies of the original miniseries but also to engage again in a difficult conversation. This not only began during the 1977’s premiere but has been discussed since the time of slavery.

The origins of the story, being a combination of fact and fiction, as well as attempts to rewrite history for the purposes of appealing to an audience and affect how the story is displayed. While Roots lives on as a massive television event and an iconic novel, the changes helped to bring to the light the issues from the original.

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