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Forget African-American superheroes in movies, behold the slave heroes of Roots

You do not have to turn to science fiction to find blacks doing extraordinary things, says actress Anika Noni Rose

This is an interesting time for films and television shows about the African-American experience.

There are revenge fantasies in which black heroes kill white slavers - Django Unchained (2012). In comic-book movies, there is Falcon, glimpsed in Captain America: Civil War (showing in Singapore cinemas); Will Smith plays Deadshot in the coming Suicide Squad movie; and Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther has been announced.

Some might see this as a welcome change, compared with the time when black people were absent, sidelined or portrayed negatively. 

Actress Anika Noni Rose, 43, is all for positive portrayals, but points out that you do not have to turn to science fiction to find black people doing extraordinary things. 

When the United States practised slavery, there were many instances of selflessness and sacrifice, she says. 

"Before we start to put on tights and capes, it's important to see that there were slave heroes. They didn't have masks and capes, but they had intelligence, perseverance and hope," she adds.

Why would he do that? What an amazing thing to teach your children about how far we have come, how you would never let that be something that you would do, how blessed we are that we live in a different society.

ACTRESS ANIKA NONI ROSE on actor Ben Affleck trying to stop documentary-makers from revealing last year that one of his ancestors had owned slaves

Some of those stories will be told in the miniseries Roots, in which Rose appears as Kizzy, the daughter of a slave, Kunta Kinte. 

She and other cast members of Roots spoke to The Straits Times at a press event in Cannes, France, last month.

Roots is a remake of the 1977 series that became a global phenomenon. Based on a 1976 best-selling book by Alex Haley, it tells the story of his ancestors, beginning with Kinte, kidnapped and brought in chains to America. 

The new show will be aired in Singapore on History channel (StarHub TV Channel 401) on four consecutive nights at 10pm, starting from Tuesday.

The original series was a sensation when it aired, not only for addressing a sensitive topic, but also because it was a gripping tale of survival against the odds. It holds records in the US and overseas for viewership figures. It won nine Emmys, among them for Best Limited Series and Best Writing.

The series also launched the career of actor LeVar Burton, who played Kinte. Burton is executive producer on the remake. He says opening the window of that period in history will help people to move forward, not back.

"There is a great sense of shame in the idea of being victims. And we can't get past the shame unless we examine history," says the 59-year-old actor who, after Roots, went on to become Geordi La Forge in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV show and films. 

Burton helped cast British actor Malachi Kirby, 26, as the new Kinte. Producers of the show say that the four-night, eight-hour show will be more cinematic than the original, with higher production values.

Changes include making sure that viewers see more of Kinte's African origins, showing that his was a sophisticated warrior society. In the original, Kinte's village is shown only briefly before his capture. Characters such as Tom Lea and Chicken George, played in 1977 by Chuck Connors and Ben Vereen respectively, are now played by younger actors Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Rege-Jean Page.

Rose gives an example of how embracing the past, and the feelings of guilt and shame it generates, can be cathartic if processed the right way. 

Last year, actor Ben Affleck admitted to trying to stop documentary-makers from revealing that one of his ancestors had owned slaves. 

"Why would he do that? What an amazing thing to teach your children about how far we have come, how you would never let that be something that you would do, how blessed we are that we live in a different society," Rose says. 

She adds that there are those in the black community who would prefer not to see slave stories because of "the discomfort of being viewed that way all the time".

Those feelings of shame can be dispelled if there were more stories about slaves and free black people of that period behaving heroically, instead of passively, as tends to be the case in stories of the period.

"It's like being beaten with the same story all the time. There were many black people who were free and doing things on their own and assisting their brethren. Their stories are not being told," she says. 

When asked if the violent western Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino, might be an example of a new kind of slave story, both Burton and Rose sigh.

"It's important the slave stories be told by people whose stories it is," she answers simply. 

One of these people might be Nancy Holt, a composite character created to reflect the efforts of white Southerners who viewed slavery as evil. New Zealand actress Anna Paquin, 33, plays Holt, an upper-class woman who is secretly a member of the anti-slavery movement. 

"She is this perfect, perfect white housewife. Women at the time weren't seen to have a brain, so men spoke freely in front of them, which gave her the opportunity to gather lots of sensitive information," she says. 

"Holt wasn't a real person, but in my research, I read about extraordinary women like her. You never hear that aspect of history."

Irish actor Rhys Meyers plays someone the opposite of Holt - his character Lea is a poor farmer who becomes Kizzy's owner and rapes her, producing a son. 

The 38-year-old actor says Lea "has no redeeming qualities, he's the worst of men".  He was at first taken aback by the villainy of the character, saying it made him nervous.

"I had to approach the role with absolute brutality. Anything less would be a disservice."

He watched the series as a six-year-old in Ireland, but avoided watching it again or reading the book after he got the part. Not just because the screenplay differs from the book, but also as there are things that can be shown now that could not have been shown in the 1970s. Society was different then, he explains. 

"This new series is far more grown-up. We have the technology now to bring to the screen the atmosphere and sense of brutality that couldn't be done in 1977."

•Roots premieres on History channel (StarHub TV Channel 401) on Tuesday, airing over four consecutive nights at 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2016, with the headline 'Real slave heroes'. Print Edition | Subscribe