UT Historian Daina Ramey Berry on ‘Roots’

Photo provided by A&E Networks.

Photo provided by A&E Networks.

UT historian Daina Ramey Berry, an expert on 19th century American slave culture, recently served as a historical consultant and technical adviser for A&E HISTORY’s re-imagining of Roots. She traveled to New Orleans to work on the show’s set, arriving at 4 a.m. each day. Then she worked 12-15 hour days, and in her scant free time she finalized spring semester grades for her UT students.

Berry says arriving on set at the same time enslaved people would be going to the fields was a powerful experience, one she wishes she could bring to her students on the Forty Acres.

Since airing in May, Roots has been nominated for seven Emmy awards. Berry spoke with the Alcalde about her experiences working with the cast and crew, how she met Australian film director Phillip Noyce, and the cultural significance of rebooting the beloved 1977 miniseries.

Alcalde: What is your research primarily focused on?

Daina Berry: Most of my research is on the history of slavery in the United States. In particular, I do work on gender slavery and the history of slavery in capitalism. I just finished a book on how enslaved people were priced, how they were auctioned off and sold, and how enslaved people responded to being treated as a commodity.

How does your research connect with the work you did with Roots?

My work connects directly because I’ve done more than 20 years of teaching and 10-15 years of research. I’ve written books, articles, and encyclopedias on the issue of slavery and Roots wanted me to come and make sure that what they were doing on set and in the script was historically accurate.

So how did you get involved with Roots?

I believe it was a total blessing. I was contacted by their public relations person, and they were familiar with me because of my encyclopedia, Enslaved Women in America. They asked me if I was willing to serve on the technical side of the show. So, while I was working on the show, I read drafts of the script, spoke with whomever had questions about anything related to slavery, and they invited me come work on set when they were filming the slavery scenes. That was really helpful because there were small nuances where I could say, “This really would not have been accurate.”

Did you work directly with any of the cast members?

Definitely. I worked with Malachi Kirby, who played Kunta Kinte, all the cast members who were there the days they filmed the whipping and plantation scenes, and I also worked with some of the extras. There were also some children there on set. Luckily, they were there with their parents, but the kids were trying to understand slavery and the history of slavery.

The director I worked with was Phillip Noyce and he was great. He was very intense, but in a good way. When I got to set the first day, he wanted me to sit in the director’s tent right next to him.

What was your favorite part about working on Roots? 

It was a phenomenal team. I was extremely impressed with everybody involved in this production and that they really wanted to get this story right. I enjoyed working with Roots because everybody there really appreciated history, and that to me is priceless.

Was there anything that surprised you?

I was really taken aback by the whipping. I have never heard—in real life—the sound of a whip and have never been literally right next to someone being whipped. The first night I was there, one of the actors who had to use the whip was practicing. You could feel the power in the whip just by the sound of it, and it sent chills down my spine. I could not help by think about all the backs that sound landed on for over 200 years.

From a cultural standpoint, why do you think it’s important for Roots to be shown again?

The original Roots first aired in 1977, and the scholarship of slavery and the history since then has exploded. Since then, there have been hundreds and thousands of books that have been published on slavery so we know way more about the institution of slavery and the cultural lives about enslaved people and their owners. The crew that I worked with wanted to tell a version of Roots in 2016 that incorporated all this new research. They could have easily upgraded the show to make it look a bit more modern, but they put in such a great amount of work into each detail, which allowed us to have a current version of what enslavement was like for some years and years ago. To me, that is a huge contribution to our understanding of race and culture in America.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

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