The feelings towards The History Channel's remake of Alex Haley's Roots miniseries are almost as complicated as the history explored in the eight-hour epic about Kunta Kinte, an African man sold into slavery and and brought to the Americas.
Among professional critics, the remake is widely acclaimed with many writers praising the updated drama for its powerful performances and relevance in the Black Lives Matter era. Other circles, though, have been more critical of the production for reasons worth hearing out.
For all of Roots' cinematic artistry, it is ultimately a series featuring the torture, murder, rape, and exploitation of black bodies that airs on the same predominantly white network that brought us Vikings, Mountain Men, and Swamp People. While the institution of slavery is an indelible component of American history, there is something…weird about Roots coming on after reruns of Pawn Stars.
What's more, there's a spirited conversation amongst black critics and filmmakers as to whether the fact that we continue to make movies and television shows about slavery is a good or even enjoyable thing. Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave was widely regarded as one of the best films of 2013 and managed to snag three Academy Awards, singlehandedly raising the number of black people to win Oscars from 28 to 31. Like Roots, however, many felt as if 12 Years A Slave was yet another example of black pain being held up as the only narrative about black people worthy of praise.
During last night's episode of Roots, Twitter user @5ftanomaly came out in support of the series, pointing out the value it held for a number of generations who, even today, might not have the most expansive working knowledge of what American slavery entailed.
Depending on where a child goes to school here in the U.S. and what their parents choose to teach, the degree to which they fully understand the history of black enslavement can vary wildly. Throughout history, school district have taught curricula that either downplayed the impact of slavery or attempted to cast it in a positive light.
Given that attempts at erasing slavery from history is still very much a thing that happens in America, the argument in favor of works like Roots and Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, a retelling of Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, take on more significance. For all of their violence and brutality, they remind people of a reality that lies not as far in the past as people would like to think and whose impacts still resonate today.
"In comparison to the abundance of films centered on other historically significant events, I think we have a limited number of films that truly illustrate the complexity of the experiences of enslaved Africans," @5ftanomaly told me. "There is indeed an obsession with consuming and capitalizing off of black pain, not just in Hollywood but in society at large."
"However, there are still so many slave narratives yet to be portrayed that in addition to the pain demonstrates the brilliance, beauty, and humanity of our ancestors," @5ftanomaly said. "We need more explicit depictions of slavery."