When the miniseries Roots aired in the United States in 1977, it showed the ugly truth of oppression borne from another atrocity – slavery.
Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, it traces the author’s lineage from his ancestor, who was taken from West Africa and shipped to the US as a slave.
Watched by millions of Americans then, it started a conversation about the origins of many African-Americans.
Now, at a time when issues such as Black Lives Matter, racial profiling and ensuring minority voices are heard, History Channel is retelling Roots for a new generation of audience.
To be aired over four consecutive nights, starting May 31, the eight-hour series tells the life of Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) and his legacy.
As the series progresses, audience will see the different stages of Kunta’s life – a teenager shipped with 140 others as cargo to the US who ends up working at a plantation where he is cruelly treated; as a father who teaches his daughter Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose) in the ways of his people; and as a grandfather still yearning for that elusive freedom.
The family saga continues with Kizzy – a woman born into slavery who, like her father, has to endure many hardships including being raped by a white farmer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to whom she’s sold to, resulting in a son, George (Rege-Jean Page).
We then become witness to George’s life, a son of a slave owner who struggles between his mother’s family traditions and wanting to impress his father.
Actor Page, who plays George in the series, shared in a telephone interview from Los Angeles that he has seen the original mini-series a couple of times while growing up.
“I can’t remember who it was, probably an aunt or an uncle or my parents, who said, ‘You need to know this.’ So I kind of sat and watched it as a kid. I watched it again as a teenager and at school. And just before I got the job, I watched it again,” he recalled.
Each time he watched the series, Page said he gleaned new things. “You gain an understanding of why the world is the way it is. Roots is absolutely intrinsic with American identity, and is very much part of the formation of America, the nation and the people.
“It’s about how a lot of us got there and how we dealt with each other once we got here. So, that strikes me. And it has filled in a lot of blanks why people see each other the way they do today.
“The story has a lot that echoes in the modern world and modern politics, and modern trials and tribulation that people go through on a daily basis, across the world and not just America.”
Page – whose mother is Zimbabwean and father is British – grew up in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and has lived in various part of the world including the United States, Europe and England.
When asked how his own upbringing and the fact that he’s bi-racial informed him of this struggle, the actor said: “I think growing up outside of these major powerhouses like London, New York or LA, it gives you a different perspective of the world.
“In big cities, they make decisions that have echoes to the rest of us and it’s very useful to see it from outside before you come in dabbling in the middle. So it was very useful growing up with that sense.
“Also growing up with more than one identity, and in a nation that is freshly post-apartheid – Zimbabwe is one of the youngest countries in the world (it was founded in 1980) – you feel the racial tension very, very freshly.
“And belonging, personally, to both sides to what used to be a very black and white line … you learn to observe people in a different way. You belong to both camps and you belong to neither – it’s an extraordinary existence and one I am still trying to figure out.”
One thing he has got figured out is his career as an actor. When he settled down in London, he joined the National Youth Theatre and trained at the Drama Centre London, graduating in 2013.
Last year, he starred with Jonathan Pryce in Shakespeare’s Globe production of Merchant Of Venice and was a regular in the final season of BBC series Waterloo Road.
After Roots, he can be seen as the male lead in the upcoming ABC series Spark, which also stars Lena Olin.
He mentioned that he is both excited and scared about landing the lead role in Spark: “But honestly I’ve set aside my feelings on this, I do the work and I try to put something good out for the world. There’s enough bad things in the world, so I want to put out something of quality.
“And beyond that, it’s not about me. It’s about the story and giving something to the people that would enrich their lives.”
No doubt, he is going to achieve just that with Roots. Since the series is aired on History, the channel has poured in tremendous production value hiring 10 historians and experts to fact check all the information.
To ensure authenticity too, costumes, accessories, music and locations were all looked into carefully.
A recent New York Times article attested that “the first Roots got some things wrong.” It quoted Mark M Wolper, an executive producer saying “I’m not being modest here. We have to make it better than the first Roots. Otherwise, why bother?”
It was a gruelling four-month shoot with scenes filmed in Louisiana in the US and South Africa. It employed 192 cast members, 747 crew members and over 5,000 extras.
“Honestly it’s hard to put it into words,” said Page of the the finished product.
“More than anything else, I feel quite overwhelmed. It’s very, very, full-on and demands a lot of the audience. It’s very inspiring. And it reminded me how much it took out of everyone to make it – it was a very, very long and very, very draining shoot – but it was all worth it.”
Roots premieres on May 31 at 10pm on History (Astro Ch 555) and is showcased over four consecutive nights.