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2016 Tribeca Film Festival - Portrait Studio - Day 8

Source: Larry Busacca / Getty

Everyone has a story about watching Roots for the first time. The 1970s mini series was a national event, depicting the horrors of American history on an unprecedented scale. It remains etched into the minds of everyone who has seen it. So when the History Channel announced that it was doing a remake, naturally there was a lot of skepticism.

Upon hearing the news, Malachi Kirby had the same reaction as everyone else, “Why?” The original still had the power to break someone down into tears. However, when the up-and-coming actor was offered to audition for the role, his focus shifted away from the past. After a long audition process, Malachi Kirby became this generation’s Kunta Kinte and the series made its debut at this year’s  Tribeca Film Festival. several weeks ago, the answer became more evident: this chapter of global history should never be forgotten.

In talking with Malachi about the remake, it was clear he had a great amount of respect for the original. But rather than emulating LeVar Burton‘s Kunta Kinte, he searched to find something else in the character. Here, the interview covers how Malachi came to accept the role, committing himself to playing Kunta, and how th story is not taught in British schools.

TUD: When was the first time you ever saw Roots?

Malachi: I first saw the original Roots in its entirety a few years ago. I think I was 22 or 23 at the time. So it would have been around 2012.

Do you remember your original feeling when you got through the entire series?

Oh, yeah. My mom came to me formally and gave me the boxset and said, “Watch it.” I got to it a year later and I put it on, and I got through that whole boxset that same day. That was the first time I had ever seen that form of slavery depicted visually in a film. I had never watched another series or film that told that story, and it had a huge impact on me. It was the first time I had seen my ancestry that way, and I was left feeling a lot of emotions. I wasn’t sure what to do at the time, actually. I watched the first episode of the original again just last night and it’s amazing.

How did you come to learn about the new version and the casting for the role? How did you decide that you wanted to play Kunta in the new History version?

I think it was online somewhere. It must have been some kind of press release that Roots was being remade. And like I said, I had only just watched the original a few years prior to that. Like a lot of people, my first response was, “What? Why? Really?” [Laughs] I had a lot of doubts, actually, and a lot of reservations about the project. Then I found out that I was getting an audition for the role of Kunta Kinte, and that was weird for me.

I felt a huge sense of fear in having the opportunity to take on this journey. When I found out I’d been given an offer for [the part], that fear didn’t leave, but what was added to it was a weight – a huge weight of responsibility. It felt like a burden, if I’m honest with you, taking on such a role. When I finally made the decision to be involved with this project, it was with that weight of responsibility. So it wasn’t with excitement, but with a weight of responsibility in telling the truth and telling it the right way. And that responsibility hasn’t left me.

When you came to the role, did you feel like that weight of responsibility helped you with digging into the role and getting to the heart of who you felt Kunta was and what he experience?

I would hope so. My first decision I made as an actor is to do as little acting as possible. That came from the responsibility of telling the truth, being honest in my performance and giving myself to this story with all that I had mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually — just giving myself to this story as much as I could as a vessel. So I would say yes, that sense of responsibility definitely helped me to approach this story in a way that I feel is necessary.

You said at the screening that instead of trying to emulate LeVar Burton’s version, you just dug into yourself and really tried to improvise and find your own take on Kunta. How important was it for you to do that?

That was the second decision that I made after. The first was doing as little acting as possible. The second one was staying as far away as from the original that I could. I have respect for it. I had no intention of trying to recreate LeVar’s performance. I felt like his shoes are far too big for me to fill and I wanted to come at this in the same way that I believe he did, which was with his own intuition, understanding and integrity. I thought that was the only way I could be honest with my performance. So that’s what I did.

I didn’t read. I didn’t have time to read the book. It’s a big book. I wanted to read the book, but the turnaround time between me finding out that I had the part and me digging? I’m assuming very short. Maybe a couple of weeks, and there was so much to do. There was Mandinka lessons. I had to learn the Mandinka language. I had to do horse riding lessons. I had never ridden a horse before. There was the stunts and the fight scenes. There was the research into the culture and sitting down with the Mandinka experts and learning about how they ate, and how they greeted an elder. And this, the history, the difference between their traditions and their religion. There was so much to take on. I just wanted to do as much of that as possible, so that I didn’t have to think about it when I was in the scene.

Not to draw a comparison between the two series, but I would say this one is a little more honest in the brutality and how much Blacks endured with slavery. When filming that did you feel the same way?

I mean, it wasn’t even in my mind at all. Like in terms of the original, it wasn’t something I thought about at all. It was something that I consciously tried to remove from my mind while telling the story. I have no idea really how brutal it was at the actual time. I’ve read books and I have seen films now that have depicted it. But I do know there was certainly a brutality unlike any other form of slavery. That needed to be shown, and for that reason I tried to give myself as much as I could physically to that truth.

With recent historical events like having a first Black president, discussions about police brutality and having the Black Lives Matter movement be very prominent in the public sphere right now, how do you think a series like Roots is necessary or factors into our history right now? 

Roots is a story that shows so many parallels, and I thought one was that this is the roots of the way that we live today. There are phrases that we used, there is a way that we think, there is a way we treat each other that is a product of the slavery that we went through, our ancestors went through. I feel in order to progress from that, we first need to acknowledge that so that we may change it – so that we may address it. I feel like a series like Roots, this production, does just that.

I would also hope that it brings about a sense of peace for a lot of people. A sense of healing. Letting go of guilt, letting go of shame. It is important to acknowledge our history – all of our history, and it’s not just African American history. It’s important for everyone to acknowledge that and talk about it, and speak about it in a healthy manner, in a loving manner, and then address it and move on from it. And not to forget it, but to progress. We first have to look back in order to move forward.

Speaking on that, you come from overseas in Europe and the UK. How did you relate to the overall message? Do you feel this series should be important for other people? Not just Black Americans, but perhaps the rest of the diaspora to see, take in, and absorb?

For me, this is my story. Those ships didn’t just go to the Americas. They went all over the world. They certainly went to London. My last name is Kirby. I’m a second generation Jamaican. I was born in London, but my last name is not an African name and at some point down the line that’s where I come from. We did a DNA test yesterday and I found out that my ancestry lies in West Africa, so when I watch the original I didn’t feel like I was watching American history. I felt like I was watching my own history.

I related to it with the sense of [Kunta Kinte’s] pain and his struggle, and all of their pains and struggles. It speaks to those who grew up with me and the topics of family and the importance of knowledge of self, and knowing where it is that you come from and how that can empower you as a human. That speaks to me. I didn’t know my history past my grandparents, and there were reasons for that. A lot of my history had been taken away from me, had been cut off. I didn’t learn it in the schools that I went to, so this very much so felt like my story as well.

What’s next for you? 

A holiday. [Laughs] I don’t have any other plans apart from that. I mean, Roots comes out Memorial Day in the United States. A few days after it airs, I’m planning to go very far away and turn my phone off and my emails off, and just be still for maybe over a week or something – and then I will think about work again.


Malachi Kirby On Becoming Kunta Kinte: “I Felt A Huge Sense Of Fear”  was originally published on