ABC’s 1977 miniseries, Roots, attracted an astounding 130 million viewers throughout its eight-day broadcasting period. An estimated 85% of American households tuned in to watch this cinematic retelling of Alex Haley’s iconic book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976). Its recent remake aired on American television between 30th May and 2nd June, and despite not achieving the same viewing figures, has garnered a positive reaction from critics. What really stands out, however, is its increased level of violence.

While advances in technology allow for extended battle sequences with no limits to the possible death count or magnitude of explosions, violence in the 2016 Roots manifests itself not in brutality on a vast scale, but rather in the exaggeration of events shown in the 1977 series. In an interview with VICE, Mark Wolper, executive producer of the Roots remake, commented on the whipping scene in the original, stating that Kunta Kinte, the main character in the original series ‘got his name whipped out of him in 20 lashes’. The new Kunta Kinte, however, sustains 40 lashes before he finally acknowledges his name to be Toby, as his master’s wife desires. Wolper sees this as a means of reinforcing ‘the power of this character’. What remains still unclear, from a narrative standpoint, is why it was necessary to increase violence in order to ensure empowerment.

LeVar Burton (left) as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 version of Roots, and Malachi Kirby (right) in the same role in the 2016 remake.

LeVar Burton (left) as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 version of Roots, and Malachi Kirby (right) in the same role in the 2016 remake.

While the graphic brutality we witness in Wolper’s remake is made justifiable by the importance of accurately representing the American slavery system on the screen, concerns over why it is becoming more acceptable to show violence on our screens are intertwined with the possibility of increased aggression in society; or are we simply becoming more tolerant as an audience? Indeed, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) certainly did not shy away from realistically portraying mid-nineteenth century America. Beatings, extreme violence and even rape are present in McQueen’s film, demonstrating the brutality of the time period.

A scene from 12 Years a Slave, 2013, directed by Steve McQueen.

A scene from 12 Years a Slave, 2013, directed by Steve McQueen.

The levels of violence shown both in film and television appear to increase every year, suggesting a general desensitisation to violence. A 2014 study by Matthew Grizzard revealed that while more and more people are playing video games in which they must commit serious crimes, repetition of these acts can actually lead to a heightened sense of guilt towards and understanding of their moral transgressions. This legitimises Wolper’s original statement, therefore, that he simply saw it necessary to translate Roots ‘for a whole new generation, because they’re not going to go back and watch the old one’. Many elements of the original Roots have remained a part of its remake, however.

A scene from the remake of Roots, 2016, directed by Mark Wolper.

A scene from the remake of Roots, 2016, directed by Mark Wolper.

Wolper’s collaboration with LeVar Burton, who starred in the original, facilitated a comprehensive and considerate retelling of the story. While the new series takes advantage of modern filmmaking technology and presents dramatic, fast-paced action, which the original was perhaps lacking, the essence of Haley’s story ultimately remains the same.

Having a huge impact on millions of people in 1977, unaccustomed to seeing the story of slavery told from the African-American point of view, the original series is ostensibly more successful. The fundamental purpose of Wolper’s remake, however, is to recreate the effect of its predecessor as an educative tool and eye-opening experience for those unaware of the issues surrounding Haley’s novel, and it certainly achieves this goal.

Words: Alice Tuffery

Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu