When the story of America’s shameful history of slavery told through generations of one family was adapted for TV in the Seventies, the ground-breaking series became a global phenomenon.
Now Roots is being remade and given a contemporary spin – but hotly-tipped British actor Malachi Kirby will play the lead role of Kunta Kinte in a version which gives a Hollywood platform to young, black British talent.
Adapted from 1976 Alex Haley’s novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the original ABC mini-series spanned several generations, beginning with the story of 18th century African Kinte, captured in Gambia and transported to America where he is given a brutal induction into his new life as a slave.
Incorporating the Civil War and slave uprisings leading to eventual emancipation, the saga was watched by 100 million US viewers and was also screened by the BBC, where it had a profound influence on many black British viewers.
After an international casting search, A+E Networks, producers of the remake, chose Kirby, 25, as the lead. He has previously appeared in EastEnders and the 2013 comedy drama film Gone Too Far. Kirby was handpicked by executive producer LeVar Burton, who played the original Kunta Kinte.
Kirby is joined by Simona Brown, another rising British actress, who appeared in the BBC drama The Casual Vacancy, and who plays the would-be girlfriend of Kinte.
Brown and Kirby, winners of a Screen Star of Tomorrow accolade, are represented by Femi Oguns of Identity Agency Group, a London stable for black actors heading to Hollywood, which also manages the Star Wars: The Force Awakens star, John Boyega.
The duo are joined by Nigeria-born, British-raised actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim, whose credits include Hotel Rwanda, Pirates of the Caribbean III, and the television series 24, as Samson, a mentor to Kinte.
Kae-Kazim, who worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, told The Independent: “It’s a great thing to bring Roots back. I remember seeing it as a little boy and it had a profound effect on me. I was living in England but my parents came from Nigeria so I was learning the history of that time. Visually the remake has a much more contemporary feel around it. But it’s still faithful to the book.”
Kae-Kazim, who plays a former slave in the US pirate adventure series Black Sails, warned that black actors still suffer from stereotypical roles. “There is another narrative other than just the slave narrative that needs to be told. When was the last great black British film? Or the last time the narrative wasn’t simply Caucasian with a black supporting role?
“We are often presented in a very negative and demeaning way. I lived in the UK for 20 years but it doesn’t feel like it’s changed. It’s harder in the US because there’s lots more competition. But here is the opportunity to play more diverse and interesting characters than in the UK.”
Roots, being filmed in South Africa, features Laurence Fishbone as the story’s author Alex Haley. An A-list directing line-up – Mario Van Peebles and Phillip Noyce – has been assembled for the eight-hour serial, to be screened next year on The History Channel.
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