Roots, based on Alex Haley’s novel, was first produced for television in 1977, when the epic, eight-part miniseries went on to gain huge audiences (its finale still ranks as the No. 3 highest-rated episode of television) and launch a star in LeVar Burton, who played the iconic character of Kunta Kinte.
In History’s exceptional four-part retelling of Roots, it is into Burton’s memorable shoes that actor Malachi Kirby now steps as Kunta, the initial, and overarching, protagonist in a story that leads from 1750 Africa, to the slave trade and plantation life, and beyond the Civil War. Although this new miniseries also features more established acting names like Forest Whitaker (who is terrific as Fiddler), Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anna Paquin and Laurence Fishburne, it is the young Kirby who carries the brunt of the early episodes in an incredible, Emmy-worthy performance (Roots and his upcoming role in the popular Netflix series Black Mirror should do wonders in establishing the British actor to American audiences). It’s even more incredible given how nervous he was at the outset of the project.
“Definitely,” Kirby laughed, when asked if he was intimidated in taking on this role. “I had seen the original about three years prior to me being cast in it, and I didn’t have any idea how to go about telling the story again and doing it justice. [It] put me in a position where I didn’t want to even try to re-create what LeVar had done, but more so to try and find my own interpretation of it.”
Burton is a co-executive producer on this incarnation of Roots, and Kirby says it was about a month into shooting before the two men met.
“That was surreal,” recalled Kirby. “I don’t know if you can ever really have that experience of meeting an actor who’s already played the character that you’re about to play and gone on the journey of that character. I felt a lot of love.”
The journey of the character of Kunta Kinte, as anyone familiar with the story knows, is a brutal one. He is taken from his life in Africa and thrust into the trans-Atlantic slave trade, then subjected to the harsh life of the plantation in America’s antebellum South. No work of fiction will ever be able to fully capture the abject horror of the lives that slaves faced, but Roots gives us terrifying glimpses in harrowing scenes that probably would have been too intense for 1977 television in terms of violence and language — from the grueling Middle Passage to the famous scene where Kunta is beaten into (at least outwardly) accepting his slave name, and more.
Kirby admits that those scenes were tough to perform, on many levels.
“There were a few scenes that I needed to not speak to anyone afterwards,” he admits. “Especially the ship scenes. For me personally, this role challenged me in every single way imaginable — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. It took me to my depths and more.”
But the story of Roots also features a rising from those depths, as Kunta’s ancestors persevere thanks to their forefather’s insistence on remembering his family, and his heritage, which allowed him to endure.
“I believe,” Kirby said, “it was his spirit and his knowledge of who he was and where he came from and holding onto that that definitely played a big part — if not all — of what managed to get him through.”
The spirit is part of what has made Roots so inspiring to readers and audiences over the year — even inspiring many, especially those of African descent, to explore more of their own family histories. Kirby himself is intrigued by the possibility of tracing his roots.
“I want to. I was saying it pretty much every day on set. Like, how do I go about doing this? I don’t even know my history past my grandparents. [Roots] definitely inspired me.”
Roots airs May 30-June 2 at 9pm ET on History.
Photo by Steve Dietl. © 2016