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The “Roots” remake is a reminder that yes, America needs more movies about slavery

YouTube via the History Channel
A story that needs to be told.
  • Kellie Carter Jackson
By Kellie Carter Jackson

Assistant professor of history, Hunter College

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When I told my friends that the History Channel was doing a remake of Alex Haley’s Roots, I heard a lot of groans. “Do we really need another film about slavery?” my friends said. In a word: yes.

40 years since Roots debuted, most of my students have never seen the groundbreaking original. I still have friends that tell me they refuse to see 12 Year’s a Slave. And even with all of the buzz surrounding the breakout WGN America series Underground, I still find myself having to convince people to watch. Today, we are finally entering a new phase of the slave narrative, one that is able to tell stories of empowerment and resistance, with complexity and depth.

Don’t be fooled: the debate over Roots is not about remakes. We love seeing the same story over and over again. Otherwise, how do we explain Fast and Furious 7? Seriously, 7? Or the mania over Star Wars? Rarely is anything original in Hollywood anymore. But, when it comes to America’s history of slavery, so few stories are ever fully told. Sure, we know about Harriet Tubman, but how many of us can offer three different examples of her accomplishments? The woman lived to be over 90 years old, and we’ve barely scratched the surface as far as her personal narrative is concerned. Few historical events rival the compelling stories from this period: the enslaved who mailed themselves North, those who cross dressed for hundreds miles in order to get to freedom, those who single-handedly stole a confederate ship, or incited a slave rebellion. The fact of the matter is, we need more representations of slavery in entertainment, not less. Don’t believe me? Here are nine reasons why:

  • The period beginning with the start of the Transatlantic Slave trade and ending with emancipation in the Western world includes nearly 400 years of history and five continents. This is a story of humanity and inhumanity, citizenship and denial, power and struggle. To those white people or black people who think they’ve seen it all—I guarantee you, you haven’t.
  • The most successful dramas on TV right now are the ones that offer multi-dimensional characters. Viewers don’t want villain or hero stereotypes anymore; welcome to the age of the anti-hero. In slavery, everyone’s relationship status is always complicated. Your father could own you, his wife could sell you, marriage was illegal, and you existed as someone else’s property. It doesn’t get any more complex than that.
  • Slavery was a gruesome practice, but that doesn’t mean every single movie has to be one extended whipping scene. (I’m tired of this trope too.) Comedy Central’s Drunk History, Lizzie Mae’s Ask a Slave YouTube series or even Key and Peele’s sketch on the auction block are proof than there is a way to satirize this dark period of history. It has to be done right, but I believe it’s possible to find comedy in the absurdity of racism.
  • We can always use more stories about women. For years, the quintessential slave drama centered around the story of a black man proving his manhood. Think Kunta Kinte, Amistad, Glory, or Django Unchained. While those films can be useful, I wonder how many films it would take to completely dismantle the myth of the mammy? I am excited for the re-release of Julie Dash’s Daughter’s of the Dust, filled with black women living, loving, laughing, struggling, choosing, and bridging the past to the present and the present to the future. But we definitely need more.
  • Even in the year 2016, we are still combatting the myth of the Confederacy’s Lost Cause. While no historian worth their tenure would tell you that the Civil War was unrelated to slavery, I still come across students who are conflicted. That is, until they read the actual secession documents. While there are volumes of books dedicated to the politics of this period, Hollywood can play an important role in dismantling such an insidious untruth.
  • I understand critics who say the only roles black people get are slaves. But if they are playing sophisticated and nuanced roles, then at some point, you’re not just playing a slave, but a mother, a father, and a friend.
  • #Historicallivesmatter! If the story of banking’s founding father Alexander Hamilton can rake in over a $60 million dollars on Broadway, why not others? Let’s set a Frederick Douglass speech to hip hop rhyme and verse: “Check it, ‘Power concedes nothing without demand.’ If you believe in freedom raise your hand!”
  • When I teach my course on slavery, I don’t start with the slave trade or kidnappings. I start with the great West African kingdoms of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai, sophisticated societies that flourished prior to the devastation wrought by slavery and colonization. We need more African stories that don’t involve war-torn countries and horrible one-liners such as “I am the captain now.” We need to see Mansa Musa’s epic pilgrimage to Meeca, where he gave away so much gold he devalued its worth for a generation. Some scholars believe he was the richest person who ever lived.
  • When it comes to history, we all seem to have remarkably short memories. We need to keep these stories alive, to pass them down from generation to generation so that we never forget the lessons of this very dark period in American history. But we shouldn’t simply recycle old films—we need to do the work and make sure we continue to push ourselves and push the boundaries of storytelling. Most importantly, we need to tell stories that push society to keep fighting against the seduction of privilege and the inhumanity of oppression.

So, yes, to the remake of Roots! Yes, to another season of Underground! Yes, to the release and record-selling purchase of Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. Yes, to the re-release of Daughters of the Dust.

But why stop there? Let’s tell the story of Bass Reeves, an enslaved man who ran away to become one of the most successful bounty hunters ever. He arrested over 3,000 criminals, including his own son. Let’s talk about the American Revolution from the black perspective, where George Washington himself contended, “Success will depend on which side can arm the Negro faster.” Let’s tell the story of successful entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant, who set up shop in San Francisco and became the largest financier to John Brown’s raid, donating $30,000 of her own money. (And I’m still waiting for someone do to Octavia Butler’s Kindred, who proved slavery and science-fiction are not mutually exclusive genres.)

What we need are more writers and producers and directors with creativity and courage. We historians are more than ready to supply the stories.

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