In 1977, the miniseries Roots became a cultural phenomenon. The show centers around Kunta Kinte, a man taken from his home in Africa and sold into slavery in the American south, and his and his descendants’ journey toward freedom. And still, almost 40 years later, Roots in the most watched miniseries of all time.
This past Memorial Day, History Channel began airing a remake of the iconic show.
We recently talked with actor Malachi Kirby, who plays the central character, Kunta Kinte, in the new version of Roots. Kirby, a committed Christian, discussed his story with the original miniseries, how he came to faith and the ways that faith shapes his career.
I read that you were born in the late ‘80s, and obviously the original Roots show came out in the late ‘70s. How familiar were you with the show before you took the role of Kunta Kinte?
When I was in school, I guess from about the age of five to 15, I had heard of the name “Kunta Kinte” because it was a name people would use very casually. Like, kids would use very casually to cuss somebody, to diss them. It wasn’t a positive thing to be associated with this name Kunta Kinte. So that was my first understanding of him.
Then my mom came to me when I was about 22, and gave me the boxset of Roots and very formally said, “I want you to watch this.” I don’t think she even gave me the option, she was just like “Watch this.”
A year later I watched it—I finally got around to it—and it changed my life. Literally, not in a cheesy way. I had never seen anything like that before.
I wasn’t taught that in school. I was taught about slavery, but it was the ancient Egyptians. I had never known this kind of slavery.
Watching that just changed how I saw myself, it changed how I related to people, words and phrases that I would, just the way I saw myself.
As of now, Roots is the most watched miniseries of all time. It’s got iconic actors like Levar Burton, James Earl Jones. The cultural influence is hard to underestimate, which really means remaking the show is pretty audacious. What’s it been like for you to retell such a larger than life story.
It’s been terrifying. It felt like a huge burden for me, actually.
I gave that burden to God, eventually, but the weight of responsibility never left me. And it didn’t leave room for much excitement on my part.
It was just like, “I need to get this right!” I need to tell the truth, and how can I tell this truth when I have so little knowledge of this time period? I had done research, but just none of it felt like enough truly to understand the experience that Kunta Kinte goes through.
What did you do to tap into that character?
One of the first conscious decisions that I made when I was reading for the part was to stay as far away from the original as possible—out of respect for it. Also, I decided to do as little acting as possible. I didn’t want to perform at any point while I was doing it; I just wanted to tell the truth.
And I first needed to know it and feel it so that I could share it.
I sat down with experts and historians, and we went through the things that made him human. I wanted to know who Kunta Kinte as a human. I wanted to know how he sat and how he would have eaten and how he would have greeted an elder.
I wanted to know the difference between his tradition and his religion, how his culture affected his upbringing. I wanted to get the details of those things. I wanted to know what his aspirations were, his dreams, his secrets, his hopes, like his fears—if he had any.
I needed to know his history because where he came from and his knowledge of that that empowers him on this journey. So I basically wanted to know what he knew. And so I did that research as much as I could so that I didn’t have to think about it when I was playing him. I wanted to think about what he would been thinking about, how these situations were affecting him physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.
In terms of your own journey, you’re an outspoken Christian. But you didn’t grow up that way, right?
I gave my life to Christ about 3-4 years ago. I wasn’t raised Christian.
I certainly had to seek Him out and find Him, and it’s changed my life. I’m so glad I did.
It’s also changed my career.
I was acting before I had given my life to Christ. But the effect that God has had on my actual career itself is now completely different. Going through through this journey, it’s hard not to make reference to Jesus.
You know, it’s hard not to make reference to the things that he went through, his persecutions, him being on the cross out of his integrity and not giving up who He was. Like, He was who He said He was and people wanted Him to be something different. But he didn’t change, and so he was put on the cross.
And that was Kunta Kinte. I’m not saying he’s in any way like Jesus, but the things he went through it resonated with me. It gave me an even greater understanding of who he was.
Aaron Cline Hanbury is a contributing editor for RELEVANT. You can follow him on Twitter at @achanbury