Last week I was invited to a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival of the first episode of the Roots remake, set to premiere on the History Channel on Memorial Day. During the screening, which took place at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in New York City, a random white woman sat in the seat right next to me while dozens of other seats were available. I have thoughts about this. Here are some of them.
When I first received the invitation to attend this screening, two thoughts immediately came to mind:
1. They’re remaking Roots?
2. Why are they remaking Roots?
The answer to the first question is obvious. Yes, they are. Produced by Mark Wolper (son of David L. Wolper—producer of the original series), Will Packer and others, it stars Forest Whitaker, Anika Noni Rose, Anna Paquin and Mekhi Phifer and introduces Malachi Kirby (more on him later).
The answer to the second question would come later during the screening.
I attended the screening by myself. And like (most) normal humans going to see a movie by themselves in a large theater with enough empty seats that you don’t have to sit directly next to someone—because doing that when you don’t have to do that is weird—I sat in a row that was already occupied by three black women, and the seat I chose gave me a two-seat buffer. Because, again, sitting directly next to them while there were still dozens of empty seats would have been weird.
I’m sharing both the theater-seating etiquette and the fact that there were dozens of empty seats to provide a context for what happened a couple of minutes later: A 20-something white woman came in the row and sat in the seat right next to me.
So, let’s forget about the theater-etiquette breach for a moment. Instead, let’s go through the admittedly politically incorrect thoughts going through my head when this random white woman randomly decided to sit next to me:
3. Why are you sitting next to me, random white woman who is probably a nice woman but to me right now is just the random 20-something white woman who decided to sit next to me in this theater?
4. Of all the empty seats in the theater, why did you decide to choose the one right next to me?
5. Did something about my suit or glasses say “random white women parking” or something?
6. Do you not realize what is going to happen now? Since there are dozens of empty seats and you decided to choose the one next to me, the other people in the row with us and the people in the row directly behind us are (probably) going to assume we’re together. Because there’s literally no other reason why a random woman would choose to sit right next to a random man in a theater when there are still dozens of empty seats to choose from.
7. You do realize we’re about to watch Roots, right?
8. Which is about slavery and family and perseverance and legacy. But mostly about slavery. Definitely mostly about slavery. A very graphic and raw and triggering depiction of slavery. Specifically, that period in America where white people kidnapped and owned black people for a couple of centuries.
9. And do you realize that since we’re about to watch Roots and because of your breach of theater etiquette, people are going to assume we’re a couple, and I’m now the black guy who brought his white girlfriend to Roots? (At least according to the people sitting around us.)
10. And I can’t just move now because that would be rude. (And I like my seat!)
11. So now, since this is all on my mind, it’s going to affect my Roots viewing experience. Thank you, random white woman, for making an already heavy experience even heavier.
Now, I can imagine someone reading each of those thoughts and having the following takeaways:
* I must hate white people or something.
* I must really hate interracial dating.
Neither of these is true. Although I do believe I have a duty to disrupt capital-letter Whiteness and all it entails, I don’t carry any particular animus toward individual white people. Some of my best friends know people who have white friends. (I’m kidding, of course. Well, kinda.) And I’m all for interracial dating and marriages. Love is where you find it and s—t. And some of our greatest Americans (Barack Obama, Halle Berry, Matt Barnes, etc.) are biracial.
But—and this is where things get admittedly weird—if you’re not a black guy who has already done whichever mental hurdles necessary to be OK with being the “black guy who brought his white girlfriend around a bunch of black people to see Roots,” you don’t want to be mistaken for that guy. At least I don’t. It’s hard to explain—and before I even type it, I’m aware of how awkward this is going to sound—but even if no one actually says anything about it, just the thought of them possibly thinking, “Oh, you’re one of those guys” is enough to make me reflexively self-conscious about it.
“Wait,” I can hear you asking. “If you said there’s nothing wrong with interracial dating, why would you even be self-conscious or worried about how these strangers would (wrongly) perceive your relationship with this woman?” It’s a fair and good question. And I only have one response: Because.
As I mentioned before, I entered the screening with a bit of skepticism. Remaking Roots is like remaking Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Why remake such a classic, especially if the remake has the potential to be, well, dated? But during the post-screening panel with Mark Wolper, Will Packer, Malachi Kirby, Regé-Jean Page and Erica Tazel, the audience was asked to raise their hands if they hadn’t seen the original version, and over half the (mostly young) audience did. And while I understand the exhaustion some of us have with cinematic depictions of that period, the reality is that it’s a vital and necessary part of our history—a history that spans centuries. And there are centuries’ worth of stories within that period that can and should still be told.
While still incomplete—there were scenes that still needed to be added—the film itself was all the things the original was. Haunting, depressing, illuminating. There were moments that induced laughter. And moments, such as Kunte Kinte’s (portrayed by Malachi Kirby in what I think will be a star-making performance) whipping, where the only thing you heard in the theater were sniffles. Adding to this visceral experience was the sheer beauty and majesty of the scenes shot in Africa. As both Kirby and Page (a native Zimbabwean) said during the panel, they appreciated how the remake depicted a vibrant, loving and complete community with its own culture, customs, traditions, histories and legacy. Which makes the idea of being ripped from that even more heartbreaking.
Experiences like this provide a context for why the innocuous act of this woman sitting next to me caused such angst. Sure, we (black Americans) are no longer captive and they (white Americans) are no longer the owners of us, but the effects of that period have and will continue to reverberate. So much so that they’ve created this dynamic, this neurosis, where certain race-based anxieties—as puzzling and ridiculous as they seem—exist, too.
I wish I could offer a more robust explanation of why what was going through my head was going through my head. But I can’t. Instead, if you happen to be a white person and you happen to be reading this, I’ll offer a bit of advice. If you’re going to see a screening of Roots, thanks for taking the time to see a screening of Roots! But if it’s a not-at-all-filled-to-capacity theater, and you happen to see a friendly looking black guy sitting by himself and you’re compelled to sit right next to him, don’t.
Why? Well, it’s complicated.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at email@example.com.