Go On the Set of “Roots” With Photographer Kareem Black

Photo: Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte.

Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family was first published nearly forty years ago, on August 17, 1976. Weighing in at 704 ages, the book was a heavyweight moment in publishing, a triumph of American literature in the late twentieth century. Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an African boy sold into slavery and brought to the United States in the 18th century, tracing the family’s lineage all the way to Haley himself. The story is a masterful work of reportage, one that earned Haley a Pulitzer Prize in 1977.

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That year, ABC TV staged a landmark event. From January 23–30, it aired a twelve-hour mini series over eight consecutive nights. The nation was spellbound and followed the show to the very end. One hundred million people tuned in for the finale. That’s right. 100 MILLION—almost half the country! To this day, the finale of Roots holds the distinction of being third highest rated episode of any kind in television history. Never had American television taken on African American history like this. With a cast that included LeVar Burton, John Amos, Ben Vereen, Louis Gosset, Jr., Leslie Uggams, and Vic Morrow, Roots took a docudrama approach to filming, creating a singular style the influenced later productions. Winning 9 of its 37 Emmy Awards nominations, Roots set the bar for great television.

Michael James Shaw as Marcellus and Marcellus Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy.

Michael James Shaw as Marcellus and Marcellus Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy.

Forty years later, Roots has returned, with a remake that aired May 30–June 2, 2016, on History, A&E, and Lifetime. Starring Malachi Kirby, Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Lawrence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys Myers, Anika Noni Rose, and T.I., the remake 8.5 million people on the opening night, the biggest draw for a cable miniseries in three years. The remake dropped characters added to the 1977 series that were not in the book, like Ed Asner’s Captain Davies, the savior of white guilt, while adding layers of realism to the depictions of African tribes, life on plantations, and life for black soldiers in the Union army.

The reason to make Roots is because it is just that good. The characters are singular figures that stand for the everyday heroes that so often go unknown—reminding us of the importance of telling your story, speaking truth to power, and making history. Eleven years before Roots, Alex Haley co-authored The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published after X was assassinated. Undoubtedly this experience influenced Haley’s path, bringing him to his own story, one we honor today.

Regé-Jean Page as Chicken George

Regé-Jean Page as Chicken George

Photographer Kareem Black received a commission from A&E / History Channel to photograph the actors on the set of Roots, while they were in costume and in character. He made a series of six different trips to three plantations in Louisiana that are perfectly preserved.

For Black, it was a profound experience. As a photographer, the visual reality as described by films like “Django Unchained” was transformative. He observes, “It wasn’t a documentary. You’re seeing slaves who look like everyday people. It’s no longer an abstraction; these are real people. But to see it visually, to be at the plantations—these weren’t sets; they weren’t rebuilt. They were preserved as historic sites. There were slave quarters and the big house. It wasn’t made up. And I kept thinking; it confused me. How could this be okay? I was talking to my mom about this, and she said, ‘They thought of people as property like a cow.’ If they thought of them like this, why were they afraid of letting them read? They knew, on another level, of the evil there…There were so many fences to keep this in place all in the name of money.”

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Tom Lea

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Tom Lea

Black did not see the 1977 series, and as a result, the remake was his first opportunity to engage with Haley’s incredible story of family through the actors themselves, creating a singular series of work that speaks in-character portraiture that is second to none. He reveals, “It was a job on some level and it became a pilgrimage of sorts. I didn’t read the script. I treated the actors based on what they said their characters were. I didn’t see the finished product [before taking the pictures]. The distance benefited me.”

Black describes his time with the cast as “the most pleasant set I’ve ever been on.” That gentility, grace, and beauty comes through in each of his portraits. There is a quiet grandeur in the dignity of his subjects, of their willingness to engage with some of the most painful parts of our history in order to show us the path to triumph over tragedy.

Roots will be coming to DVD and Blu-ray August 23, 2016. Both will include “Roots: A History Revealed,” a behind-the-scene documentary, in addition to the mini-series.

All photos: ©Kareem Black.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.