Aussie director makes his mark on new Roots mini-series

Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in a scene from the TV series Roots.
Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in a scene from the TV series Roots. SBS

AUSTRALIAN filmmaker Bruce Beresford is one of four directors to put their stamp on the remake of the seminal US mini-series Roots.

The four-part drama, based on the 1976 Pulitzer Prize winning book written by Alex Haley, tells the story of Kunta Kinte - a 17-year-old man taken from Gambia and sold as a slave to a plantation owner in Virginia.

The series then traces his harrowing journey and the generations that follow.

When the original series aired nearly 40 years ago it drew an estimated 130 million viewers, won nine Emmy Awards and inspired an unprecedented national conversation in America about slavery.

"I could have seen it but I thought why would I do that? We weren't filming the original series," Beresford tells The Guide.

The cast of part four of the TV mini-series Roots.
The cast of part four of the TV mini-series Roots. SBS

"For some reason I never saw it when it was on originally but I'd heard about it of course.

"The producer on the series was a terrific guy whose father produced the original series. I said to him 'what made you want to redo it?' He said 'I dug out the original series to show it to my two teenage sons and neither of them liked it'."

Beresford, best known for his feature films including Driving Miss Daisy, Breaker Morant and Mao's Last Dancer, directs the fourth and final episode featuring Kinte's grandson George and grandchildren during the American Civil War.

The series stars a few well-known actors including Anna Paquin, Mekhi Phifer, Laurence Fishburne and rapper Tip 'TI' Harris but the rest of the cast were newcomers.

"The actors all were incredibly astute and quick with the dialogue," he says.

"The younger ones in the family were all doing their first film.

"At first I was rather apprehensive (about TI) but he was rather good. He's a tremendously likeable guy and very witty."

Rapper TI, left, and Reg -Jean Page, far right, in a scene from the TV series Roots.
Rapper TI, left, and Reg -Jean Page, far right, in a scene from the TV series Roots. SBS


The production took Beresford back to New Orleans, where he filmed his crime drama Double Jeopardy. The wooded areas outside the Gulf city provided several challenges to Beresford and his crew.

"It is hellishly hot in the summer; it's like Cairns," he says.

"Some days were pretty incredible; we'd have millions of bugs and snakes.

"I've never seen so many snakes. We had snake wranglers who would have to go in while we were filming the battle scenes and go through the undergrowth. It would be quite a small area and they'd come back with 10 rattlesnakes."

Beresford had just two days to film key Civil War battle scenes. He said fast production schedules have become the norm both on the small and big screens.

"These days everything is done pretty quickly," he says. "The last feature film I did was done in 24 days and this episode of Roots was shot in 23 days, which is very tight when you consider how much action there is in it."

Fellow Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence) was also called upon to direct the first episode of Roots.

Roots premieres on SBS1 on Wednesday at 8.30pm.

The mini-series will also be shown on SBS's ON DEMAND streaming service after broadcast and on NITV from Saturday July 30.

Topics:  sbs tv television

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