Roots returns modern audiences and Emmy voters to the powerful Alex Haley saga
Airing over four nights on various cable networks (History, A&E, and Lifetime), the modern remake of the seminal 1977 miniseries Roots has an uphill climb ahead of it in terms of Emmy glory. Granted, the producers of the updated version most likely don’t care about Emmy awards. The 2016 limited series has deep and important cultural resonance today, particularly so close to the Black Lives Matter movement. Modern audience could stand a history lesson.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what modern audiences are likely to consider when approached with the material. That’s a shame too because Roots is far from high school morality. From what I’ve seen of it thus far, Roots is a complex and intriguing tale of one man, Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), and his journey into American slavery. It doesn’t pull punches. It’s intense. It’s graphic. It’s everything we needed it to be. I’m just not sure right now how many people are willing to sit through what is likely to be an extremely punishing 8-plus hours. Especially so soon after the thematically similar Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave.
Also going against it is the specter of the original 1977 version, which just happened to receive a record 37 Emmy nominations. It won 9 Emmys, and it still holds the third highest Nielsen rating for any television show for the finale. Clearly, the original vision will weigh heavily on modern audiences, so, in order to really excel in the 2016 Emmy race, it’s going to have to overcome an unfortunate sense of “been there done that” and it’s going to have to be better than the original. Early reviews have been very, very strong, but no one is speaking that kind of language around the remake.
It’s exceedingly likely that 2016 Roots won’t match that kind of Emmy impact. And, honestly, it absolutely doesn’t matter. This story is an important story that deserves to be revisited. The lessons of the past must influence the present and the future.
So, what can we reasonably expect from the new limited series?
The 1977 version saw a crazy number of acting nominations, 11 nominations in both lead and supporting categories. Surprisingly, it won only one – Louis Gossett, Jr., for Best Actor. Common thought around the reboot sees Malachi Kirby, Anika Noni Rose, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Anna Paquin, Mekhi Phifer, and Forest Whitaker as the most likely names worthy of recognition. These categories, however, are insanely crowded with a widely diverse body of actors, mostly stemming from Fargo, American Horror Story: Hotel, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The Roots cast will have to overcome significant odds to make anywhere as big of a showing as the 1977 version. Rose, Corinealdi, and Paquin seem locked at this point. Other prognosticators are big on Phifer and Whitaker in the Supporting Actor category, but that category is massively full. I could see one getting in (Whitaker, most likely), but not two. It’s just too big of a year.
Technical nominations, however, are guaranteed. The cinematography and costumes are all top notch as would be expected for such a prestigious presentation. Limited Series, writing, and direction also seem as locked as anything at this point, although anything is possible. It is a very powerful and tough year for Limited Series.
But, again, no one really should ultimately care how many Emmy nominations Roots will receive. The merit and worth of the 2016 Roots will not be measured in Emmy awards. It will be measured in the words and thoughts of those who are again faced the memory of how this country was founded and how we continue to struggle with that legacy today.
Anika Noni Rose, Lead Actress
Emayatzy Corinealdi, Supporting Actress
Forest Whitaker, Supporting Actor
Anna Paquin, Supporting Actress
Malachi Kirby, Lead Actor
Mekhi Phifer, Supporting Actor