Roots (2016): The Problem With Plagiarized History

Kunta KInte Roots

“Roots,” the original television spectacle took a country by storm back in the late ’70s.   Adapted from Alex Haley’s book of the same name, it followed the trials and tribulations of Kunta Kinte a warrior sold into slavery and was a ratings smash in 1977 when it aired on ABC.  But it there was a problem, the history (judged as a true story) was plagiarized.

Haley was charged with plagiarism (accused of borrowing rather liberally from existing works, including Margaret Walker’s “Jubilee”)  and the author apologized for “inadvertently using other writer’s material.”   Ironically Haley won the Pulitzer-prize for his (two) novels and in 1993 Philip Nobile almost single handedly led a crusade to have the prize posthumously taken away from Haley.

Did these charges or Nobile’s “proof” of widespread plagiarism change the power of the television mini-series?


The remake, currently airing on the History Channel, is as moving and epic as the 1977 version. LeVar Burton became a household name because of his portrayal of Kunta Kinte (Toby) and brought the multi-talented Ben Vereen (Chicken George) into the well deserved spotlight.  A plethora of white actors and stars clamored to be in this “ground-breaking” look at the realities of slavery in the early part of America’s history. 

And it was based on a falsehood.  Words taken from other author’s and a myth based upon a fiction that masqueraded as fact. (Although to be fair Haley did refrain from referring to his work as non-fiction.)

Leaving the race card completely out of the equation, ” Roots” was, at its heart, a story of an underdog. A proud warrior plucked from friends and family and sold into slavery.  Transported halfway across the world he is then beaten, has his identity stolen and repeatedly tries to escape only to be caught and maltreated. Punished for trying to keep true to himself.

Slavery, whether it be Spartacus fighting the Romans or Kunta KInte fighting his new captors in the state of Virginia, is a topic sure to touch the viewer. Who does not get behind the man, or woman, who fights against oppression or rebels at being forced to be something they are not?

The first two episodes of “Roots” (2016) have aired on the History Channel. The second on 31 May 2016 and if there is not talk about Emmy gongs already, there should be.  Forest Whitaker  and Malachi Kirby have knocked it out of the park in terms of performance.  Sadly, the slave-owners and their accomplices are two dimensional cardboard cutouts, which was a problem in the original series as well.   

(Which is the problem with the intent of both programs in reality. Snoop Dogg, an entertainer who grafts hard for his living, has slammed the remake as being unnecessary; another backward look while we should all be moving and looking forward.  It is interesting to note that at the start of the story, Kunta Kinte is actually captured and enslaved by another African tribe who then sell the warrior to the British as added punishment.  This is never addressed after the beginning, choosing instead to focus on the horrible slave owners in America.)

But the real point here is not whether the tale is diminished by Haley’s plagiarism or that the story is a fiction based on a borrowed myth of other author’s works. The real issue is that the series moves the viewer. Regardless of skin color or racial heritage.

Everyone, unless they are card carrying racists of the most disgusting sort, gets behind Kunta Kinte as he fights to maintain his identity, his past, his roots.  Striving to be an individual who has a purpose and a will. “Toby” fights for the one thing he can cling to after being stolen from his people and home; his name.

Watching this version of “Roots” I was amazed to find that time had not dulled my reactions to the story.  Rage, disgust, sorrow and other feelings all manifested themselves while watching the remake just as they had back in 1977.

While Snoop Dogg’s displeasure at revisiting a part of American history that many would like to forget (Or at least gloss over, similar to country’s attitude about the murder of Native American’s on a grand scale with the tragic “Trail of Tears.”) it is good that we can see “how we got here.”

Regardless of Haley’s sins of borrowing liberally in his writing of “Roots” the tale is a moving one.  The mini-series still has a number of episodes to go and is well worth watching. (The performances alone make viewing a memorable experience.)  This time of year sees television slow down. Scripted TV takes a backseat to reality competitions (America’s Got Talent for example) and this is drama with a capital D.

“Roots” is well worth the time spent watching it;  each “episode” of this mini-series is a long one but no worse than watching a feature film.  The only note of complaint is that the History Channel is airing the mini-series.  “Roots” is not, by the late Haley’s own admission, history. It is not non-fiction but an amalgamation, or dramatization, of a reality that existed in early America.

Regardless of the problems of plagiarism this is compelling viewing.  Stop by and check it out and if you have the time, check out the original mini-series to see Burton and Vereen and their power.  The power of “Roots” was all about giving a myth to people who needed it. Myth for myth’s sake.  Regardless of the why, it is a powerful tale and worth watching.

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