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Why '12 Years a Slave' and 'Roots' are Inadequate Representations of Slavery

28/02/2014 13:15 GMT | Updated 30/04/2014 10:59 BST

When Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley was published in 1976, it was greeted by waves of attention and immediate success. Within a month of its publication date, it climbed to the very top of The New York Times Best Seller List, where it stayed for another ten months in the 'non-fiction' category. The book's popularity was certainly spurred on by another medium: its adaptation for television as the TV mini-series Roots, broadcast on ABC-TV in early 1977. The series, produced by David L. Wolper, was a resounding success, attracting an incredible 100 million viewers and becoming 'the event that made television history' - Roots certainly got it right in its advertising line.

The story behind the book and film is certainly representative of what many black people or families went through when they were sold into slavery. It is also shocking (to a contemporary audience): a young Gambian boy, named Kunta Kinte, is abducted by several white men near his village in the Gambia, and taken by force to the United States to work as a slave. The dramatic story of his ancestors' long road to freedom gradually unfolds, always accompanied by heart-wrenching failed escapes and bloody scenes of torture that inevitably follow bouts of yearning for freedom; whips, vengeful white plantation workers, indifferent plantation owners' wives and a widespread sense of hopeless impotence colour most scenes.

To those who have not seen Roots, the plot may still read like a familiar story. The recent release by black British director Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, may start differently, but it follows a very similar trajectory of blood, whips and brutality. Solomon Northup, a free black man, is abducted and sold into slavery, in which he then spends twelve years working on various plantations in Louisiana.

The greatest difference between Roots and 12 Years a Slave is that while David L. Wolper brought together a cast of passionate, enthusiastic individuals eager to spread the story, McQueen decided to cast brutality in the main role. While Roots follows the complex process of its protagonists' development as men and women, and conveys profound emotion in an exemplary show of characterisation, 12 Years a Slave shocks and repulses, stings and shouts, and therefore attracts. The two productions, despite many similarities, represent two fundamentally different ways of conveying the same story - and neither is worse, or better.

Each production seems to work towards, and achieve, different goals. As such, McQueen cannot exactly be blamed for his brutal portrayal of the times. Censoring the violence would completely defy the purpose of such a film. But using it indiscriminately, repeatedly, over and over again, just like the slavers themselves, to the point where the whip - and not so much the freedom - becomes the main characteristic of the film thanks to may not be the best way to educate the public. Roots, on the other hand, educated a whole generation. Actor Sandy Duncan, who played Missy Anne Reynolds, said in an interview 'I almost think it should be required viewing' in schools. Indeed, the series outlines the development of an era in history; a tragic era that needs to be studied. McQueen seems to convey a moment, a single story caught in time; David L. Wolper puts a whole history in motion.

But is this all there is? A choice limited to a brutal feature that singles out one individual, or 540-minute, near-educational series from 1977?

According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., who worked with Steve McQueen on the historical consultation for 12 Years a Slave, only about 200 accounts of slavery were published between 1760 and present day by fugitive slaves. The fact that only two of them - Solomon Northup's 12 Years a Slave and Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of an American Family - managed to attract popular attention and enter mainstream media may be somewhat dismaying for such a monumental and abominable chapter in the world's history. After all, Spielberg's Amistad (1997) and Lincoln (2012) are essentially 'white' accounts of slavery, Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) is in no way based on a true story, and Gone with the Wind (1939) merely propelled existing stereotypes.

What is striking is that these two mainstream productions - and no others - keep coming back to television and cinemas. Even Steve McQueen's highly lauded 12 Years a Slave is far from original; the first autobiographical film based on Northup's book and story aired on PBS exactly thirty years ago, in 1984, making McQueen's film a remake of a remake. Even Roots is getting its re-remake; rumour has it that History have bought the rights to recreate the legendary series. It would seem, then, that this is indeed all there is.

Strangely, then, the history of slavery as seen through slaves' eyes is, simultaneously, over- and underrepresented. Two pairs of eyes dominate the whole picture, and other stories, it seems, are nowhere to be found. Two books, and the two productions that accompany them, seem to form the crux of public opinion - and this, again, signals underrepresentation. Perhaps it is as LeVar Burton, the actor who played Kunta Kinte in Roots, suggested in a 2004 interview: 'unfortunately, the standard of excellence that was raised to such a phenomenal level by the writings of Alex Haley, the works of David Walper - that bar has now descended appreciably.'

But, actually, that's not all there is.

Although the screen may disappoint, literature promises a much more profound, comprehensive view of the issue - provided by the victims themselves. Northup's 12 Years a Slave is indeed a great, compelling read; Haley's Roots: The Saga of an American Family is too, but it's difficult to look at it the same way now that Haley himself had been - rightly - accused of plagiarism, despite having claimed that 12 years of rigorous research had gone into the text. But, importantly, apart from these two bestsellers, there is the lesser-known but no less touching Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, memoirs written by Harriet Jacobs; we have the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, an autobiographical account by Frederick Douglass; Narrative of Sojourner Truth, an inspiring story of slavery and liberation written by slave - and then free woman - Sojourner Truth; an ambitious series of interviews with over 2,000 former slaves entitled When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection; the list goes on.

So, amidst all the attention-grabbing and tear-jerking scenes of bloodshed and brutality in McQueen's film, there may still be some room for a profound, empathetic connection with the actual protagonists of the tragedy. 12 Years a Slave may have rekindled an interest in the stories of America's slaves, and that is already a success.

Indeed, all these films and books accomplish a mission of their own, and paint a series of unique images of America's shameful past. Read and watched in unison, they offer a glimpse - still only a glimpse - into this past; but it is only in unison that they can achieve this.

This article was originally published on The Culture Trip as Why 12 Years a Slave and Roots are Inadequate Representations of Slavery.