“This is a historian’s dream,” says Daina Ramey Berry, an associate professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, who served as a technical adviser for the remaking of the television miniseries “Roots.” It will premiere on Memorial Day, airing over four consecutive nights.
The A&E Networks’ HISTORY, A&E and Lifetime channels will simulcast the series introducing a new audience to the epic historical portrait of American slavery. It recounts the journey of Kunta Kinte and his family’s will to survive and ultimately carry on their legacy despite hardship. “Roots” first premiered to an audience of more than 100 million viewers in 1977. It is based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
Berry had the opportunity to work with the director on set in Louisiana during filming and provided valuable feedback to ensure historic accuracy. She recalls the director encouraging her to tell him if anything was out of place and the crew’s commitment to authenticity. “They have paid attention to every detail.”
The project tapped the talents of both historians and linguists. Part of Berry’s role as technical adviser was to recommend readings and review the script prior to filming.
As a scholar who focuses on 19th century American history, comparative slavery, with a particular emphasis on the role of gender, labor, family and economy among the enslaved, Berry was able to provide perspective on the Africans role in the slave trade, marriage and relationships, and the different cultures and traditions among the enslaved.
“One issue is to show the intellectual history of the slaves,” Berry says. “To show their agency.”
In the classroom, Berry describes her teaching philosophy as “a sensory experience.” That philosophy was relevant in her role as technical adviser. She recalls the sights and sounds of walking on the plantation during filming, experiencing the morning fog, walking through the deep trenches, the feel and smell of tobacco used during the plantation scenes.
“All my senses were plugged in,” Berry says. “That was really powerful for me.”
Berry recalls a particularly overwhelming scene with the actor Malachi Kirby, who plays Kunta Kinte. “ I’ve never heard the sound of the whip. That day everybody stopped. Everybody gathered around.”
Kirby is joined by a stellar cast including Forest Whitaker (Fiddler), Anna Paquin (Nancy Holt), Laurence Fishburne (Alex Haley), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Tom Lea), Anika Noni Rose (Kizzy), Tip “T.I.” Harris (Cyrus), Emayatzy Corinealdi (Belle), Matthew Goode (Dr. William Waller), Mekhi Phifer (Jerusalem), James Purefoy (John Waller) and Regé-Jean Page (Chicken George).
Feature image: Anika Noni Rose (Kizzy) and Laurence Fishburne (Alex Haley).