Why Black People Did Not Watch Roots

Let me preface this post with a few points. I watched the re-imagined Roots and I am a black person. I also watched the two accompanying episodes on the historical references in the mini-series and the behind-the-scenes footage. In elementary school we watched the 1977 version of Roots over several long hot days, in the auditorium. I had not remembered much of the original, beyond a few characters’ names and faces, so I was particularly interested to see this updated version. Of course, the big question is why even do an updated version? Is an update necessary? But then I wonder, are any remakes necessary? The Karate Kid? Fame? Annie? “Old” movies are remade all the time, and more so now, as Hollywood seems to be lacking in the original ideas department.

The History Channel’s Roots remake has gotten a ton of backlash and negative comments from black people, who made a conscious choice not to watch it. And this is what I want to explore. I decided to ask black people on Facebook why they aren’t watching it. Here are some of the responses…

I’m not entertained by the new slave marketing explosion.

No interest in seeing the same themes rehashed over and over again. The story has been done, is mildly over hyped, and semi-fictionalized and plagiarized. Doesn’t really appeal to me to have my emotions twisted as a means of entertainment.

I get tired of slave reminders… If I want to watch racism in full swing all I have to do is go to work…

I’m tired of slave movies. It’s making me mad.

What these kinds of movies do is subtly strike conviction in us and our youth to be afraid of the white man. We are not in the mindset to use our plight for empowerment as Jews do their holocaust. Shit like that resonates in us when we see what the white man has done to us. See, they not gone show us movies with us being entrepreneurs or business men/ women but what they will do is give us a healthy dose of us being hung and lynched and show the people who had the power to pull it off.

I’m over the ‘look how far we’ve come’ theme of slave movies… Where are the films and mini series that focus on our people’s first doctors, lawyers, inventors, etc.?

Its a myth portrayed to be a biopic or teaching tool… Roots is microwave scholarship…

The new cast is inferior to the original…

We have conquered more than slavery… we didn’t start that way… we were/are Kings, Queens, Inventors, Doctors, Teachers… Also, I’m sure I will have a straight attitude after watching it!

Confession: I didn’t completely watch the first one soooo I’m just skipping this one… Edutainment never did it for me…

I’m angry enough watching images of black bodies dead in the streets due to another persons fear of nothing. Don’t need more chaos in my heart.

I have never watched the original in its entirety. I have very little desire to watch the remake.

So, there’s a collective of black people that did not watch Roots for a variety of reasons: tired of slavery movies, it’s too painful, never saw the first one and don’t care to see the new one, tired of slavery being a focus of our history, it will bring about angry emotions.

My mother made a good point when I asked if she would be watching it. She said she feels like there’s been a sort of movement to get blacks to be ashamed of slavery. The idea being that if we’re ashamed of it, we’ll erase it from our minds; act like it never happened. If we’re ashamed, enough, we’ll just live in our glossy present and forget about the past.

One person mentioned Jews and the Holocaust, and it made me think of a moment I’ll never forget.

When I was around 13 I participated in a Rites of Passage class and ceremony, through my church. We were each given a mentor. Mine was this very cool woman named Diane. Diane loved going to movies, so that became our thing. Diane was also Jewish and took me to see Schindler’s List. I remember the line at the Avalon movie theater was wrapped around the block. I didn’t know much about the Holocaust, beyond what was taught in school. The film gave me an honest, brutal, glimpse into the struggles of the Jewish people and the tragedy of that horrible time. When the film was over, the packed crowd stood, in emotional applause, for nearly 15 minutes. I remember being very struck by this. Nothing had ever impacted me in that way. I know I was just a kid, but this was a collective experience for them.

I think I was finally impacted, in as an emotional way, when I saw 12 Years A Slave. It too was honest and brutal, but also really beautiful. Though, I finally felt a similar, emotional, connection to my ancestors, something about it still wasn’t the same as Jews response to Schindler’s List. I think it has to do with time. Slavery ended almost 200 years ago, in 1865. The Holocaust ended in 1945, only 71 years ago. While I was in the theater, watching 12 Years A Slave, crippled by the hardships of my ancestors, I was thinking, ‘Wow. Look at all they went through.’ “They” being very definitive, in that it shows how far removed I am from my ancestors. But, Jews watching Schindler’s List are thinking, ‘Wow. Look at what my parents or grandparents went through.’ Their attachment to their history is much closer to home.

In the behind-the-scenes episode, of the re-imagined Roots, one of the executive producers, Mark Wolper — who happens to be the son of one of the producers of the original Roots, David Wolper — said he tried showing the original Roots to his children and they just weren’t engaged. This is the digital media generation. So, he knew he had to present this story, almost like an action movie, for it to appeal to this new audience; for the message to resonate with them. The producers purposely showed the brutality of slavery, in a way the original had not, to present the most accurate depiction of what happened; what the slaves actually endured. They also worked to clean up inaccuracies they found in the first min-series. I really appreciated all of their efforts and thought the new Roots was remarkable.

I want to end with two points. First, when my mother brought up the shame we sometimes feel, when it comes to slavery, it made me think about this phrase: “You have to crawl, before you walk.” I have watched my daughter grow, fast, over the past two years. It’s been pretty amazing watching this person grasp so much in so little time. One day she will be 18, and she will look at her baby pictures and videos and be completely taken aback. She’ll listen to the adults who’ve raised her talk about her drooling, her thumb sucking, her tantrums. She won’t be able to comprehend the fact that there was a time when she could not speak, could not pick things up, didn’t know her left from her right, and could not walk. She might even be embarrassed by what she’s unable to remember; embarrassed about who she once was. But, my hope is that her village will help her to appreciate her past, who she was, and embrace it as significant to all she will become. Slaves crawled, so that we could walk.

And lastly, dreams. We all dream. Some we remember, some we don’t. Some dreams we create out of hopes and goals for the future; things we badly want. I have very hopeful dreams for my family, friends, the people I love. I dream for my community, things I hope will change. Black people, you and I are a slaves’ dreams, realized. They imagined us, so let’s never ever forget them.

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