Back in 1977, a groundbreaking miniseries called Roots brought the story of US slavery to vivid life amid an explosion of famous actors in small parts. Now, the remake is doing the same thing with Kunta Kinte’s tale of woe from West Africa to the colony of Virginia. This time the hero is played by Malachi Kirby rather than LeVar Burton, and literally every actor you know is in this four-part series, as long as you aren’t aware of what “literally” means.
Laurence Fishburne - Alex Haley
Tackling the mostly voiceover role of Alex Haley, who wrote the novel Roots is based on, Fishburne is separate to the rest of the cast. It’s not quite The Matrix, but he brings the seeming omniscience of Morpheus to the part.
James Purefoy - John Waller
Mark Antony in Rome, Joe Carroll in The Following, and now slave owner John Waller in Roots. James really has made a career out of playing horrible men. “[Roots] was an interesting experience and reshooting a show that was already really successful and finding a new way to tell that story, it was fascinating,” he said.
Forest Whitaker - Fiddler
Played by Louis Gossett Jr in the original Roots, Fiddler uses musical talent to avoid backbreaking labour. In a behind-the-scenes featurette, Whitaker said, “My character doesn’t know what it’s like to be free, but he sees in Kunta Kinte the spirit – there’s a wind that’s blowing on him that makes him feel what it’s like to be free.”
Anna Paquin - Nancy Holt
No stranger to a Southern accent after seven seasons of True Blood, Paquin plays an uptight Quaker here, and relishes the chance to play another strong woman... despite her politics. “There is no South without slavery,” is just one of the charming lines Nancy uses to impress her mother-in-law.
Anika Noni Rose - Kizzy Waller
“She has a journey where she is trying to care for her son, raise a man in a time where black men were not allowed to be men, and raise him with a sense of dignity and responsibility and knowledge of self,” said Rose, who's had roles in Dreamgirls and The Princess and the Frog.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers - Tom Lea
No stranger to playing awful men in historical dramas, here Jonathan Rhys Meyers is less The Tudors’ King Henry VIII and more inferior-feeling slave rapist. “It’s always a personal agenda, based on greed and social evolution,” Meyers explains of the passions driving his character, in a Meet the Cast featurette.
Mandela Van Peebles - Noah
Less famous than his father and grandfather, Peebles is probably in this series because Mario Van Peebles directed an episode. Nevertheless, he did star in Baadasssss!, and he’s passionate about the story of orphan slave Noah. “We need people to understand the actual history and how it’s affecting us today,” he told radio show Sway’s Universe.
Tip “T.I.” Harris - Cyrus
Coming later down the line, Cyrus is a soldier on the Union side of the American Civil War, fighting to abolish slavery and not afraid to demand respect. Or, as Ant-Man’s T.I. tells it behind the scenes: “If you had to be a slave in the 1860s, Cyrus was the slave to be.” (Hip-hop fans are no doubt furious at him being referred to as “Ant-Man’s T.I.”)
Erica Tazel - Matilda
Coming off six seasons of Justified, Tazel sees the Roots story as very relevant today. “I call Matilda the ancestral throwback to the single mother. For many of us in our community whose husbands, boyfriends and fiancés find themselves incarcerated," she told Gold Derby, “someone had to stay home and keep that family together in the hopes that he would return.”
Chad Coleman - Mingo
He was Cutty, the ex-con who became a boxing trainer to the disaffected youths of The Wire, and now Chad plays Mingo, a no-nonsense slave and cock trainer for Tom Lea. (That means roosters who fight...)
Mekhi Phifer - Jerusalem
From Clockers to ER to 8 Mile to Torchwood: Miracle Day to the Divergent series, Mekhi’s been gracing our screens since Kunta Kinte was a boy (well, since 1995, when Malachi Kirby was six). Here, he’s Jerusalem, the mute slave who may have a mysterious agenda. “Proud to be a part of something that in some way affected us all; no matter where in the world one comes from or what colour one happens to be,” he wrote on Instagram.
Roots premieres on Wednesday 27 July at 8:30pm on SBS and encores on Saturday 30 July, 9.30pm on NITV. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand.
Watch the preview right here: