Malachi Kirby has snagged the biggest role of his budding career: portraying the iconic Kunta Kinte in the updated version of Alex Haley’s epic, Roots. More than 100 million Americans—more than half the United States and nearly 85 percent of all TV households—watched the Roots finale on Jan. 30, 1977. The original Roots made LeVar Burton, who played the young Kunta Kinte and who is a co-executive producer of the History Channel’s ambitious retelling, a household name.
The same is in store for the 26-year-old London native, whose immediate roots reach back to Jamaica and then, thanks to DNA testing, mostly back to West Africa. The Root caught up with him to talk about the weight of playing “King” Kunta, what Roots means to a black British actor and why a new Roots is necessary.
The Root: Were you excited to begin this journey?
Malachi Kirby: It felt like it was a big responsibility. Excitement was nowhere to be seen. I can assure you I was not excited; I was scared. I’m still scared. I felt the weight of the responsibility in telling the truth of this story because there’s a lot of people that need to hear it, and there’s a lot of people that I know of [that have] the mindset that they think they know the truth; they think they know what it was to be enslaved; they think they know the facts about this time period. And there’s a lot of people that just don’t.
There’s a lot of people that think they know who they are and they don’t, because they don’t know where they came from. And they don’t know that they came from a period of history way before they were enslaved, that their history doesn’t begin with slavery and that the slavery itself is not something to be ashamed of … it’s something to be proud of because we were a strong people and we survived it. And I feel like there is a lot that people need to receive from this, and I’m hoping we’ve done a good job in doing that.
TR: Lots of black Americans relate to Roots because this history directly connects to them. But for you, growing up in England, what was your connection to Roots?
MK: For me, when I watched Roots, I didn’t see something that didn’t relate to me. I saw the story of a young African boy that was taken into slavery and had his identify beaten out of him, and all the generations that came down to the time that we’re in today. And I’m looking at myself and I’m looking at where I come from, and I’m looking at the fact that my last name … is Kirby, which isn’t an African name, though I know that my ancestry goes back to Africa.
And I’m looking at where I’m living right now and I’m seeing my story, and I’m seeing this idea of someone who holds on to his integrity despite the circumstances that he’s in and the society that he’s in that is telling him to be someone that he is not, and I’m relating to it. I’m relating to this guy who is basically fighting for what he believes in and standing up strong in the midst of that.
It’s funny before I knew about Roots, I knew about Kunta Kinte because kids would tease me about it in school. If there was ever a day that my hair was [kinky], if I didn’t brush it right, kids would, like, tease me about being Kunta Kinte. So my first impression of being Kunta Kinte was a negative one, and it was this idea that it was negative to be African. And for me, I didn’t even see myself as African at the time. I was like, “I’m London,” and then it was like, “No, I’m Jamaican,” and so I just didn’t want anything to do with being African because of that. And then, when I watched Roots and I realized, “Wow, this is who people were calling me,” it was crazy for me. That’s something to be proud of …
When I watched it a few years ago properly, the impact that it had on me is still affecting me. The way that it just kind of gave me a direct insight into what it was to be alive in that period of time as a black man, and just thinking about how that is affecting [us] right now and the chains that are still on people’s minds—not even physically but just mentally—that they don’t even know about and I didn’t know about; it’s still affecting me, you know. It feel like it’s still a part of my story because those ships went to a lot of different countries.
TR: This was the first time you filmed in the United States. Was that helpful?
MK: While we were filming, there were a lot of parallels between my actual life as Malachi and Kunta Kinte. The first time he went onto a plantation while we were filming was the first time I was on a plantation … I remember looking around me and thinking, “This place is really beautiful,” with all the trees. I was surprised by how pretty it was. And then I remember the first time we did a hanging scene, and suddenly I’m looking at all these trees and all I can see is people hanging from them. It didn’t look so pretty anymore.
The last scene we shot of the whole series for me was Kunta Kinte breaking the chains and running free. It’s not the last scene of the movie, but it’s the last scene that I shot. … To have the last scene—which actually wasn’t organized like that—be me breaking the chains and running free, that was like a huge metaphor for me. It had a very big impact on me. There’s a lot of people I believe basically that still need to break that chain.
TR: Speak about LeVar Burton and his impact.
MK: I was already about a month and a half into filming before our paths crossed. The impact that he’s had on my telling of this story since I met him and just on my life as Malachi has been quite profound, actually. … [During filming] … he would just give me these little nuggets of wisdom every now and again, and it would just change my whole perspective on something, and then he would just walk away. It was like the “message.”
He’s been amazing. He’s been such a support. I remember the first time we actually met. I didn’t even know it was what I needed or what I wanted, but I just remember feeling this immense form of support from him. … Knowing that he’s already gone on this journey in many ways and he’s supporting me doing it [was huge] because I felt very inadequate, if I’m honest.
I didn’t feel like I was good enough to do this. I didn’t feel like I was ready enough or able enough, just looking at everything that Kunta Kinte goes through. I’ve never been through that and I never will. I just didn’t feel like I was up to it, and having him come over and say, like, “I see you and you’re ready.” I didn’t think I was, but I was like, “OK, if you believe in me, cool.” And he’s just been supporting me, like, even since we finished filming, he’s just been there for me and helping to guide me through this kind of crazy journey that’s happening right now.
The four-part Roots miniseries kicks off Monday at 9 p.m. on the History Channel, A&E and Lifetime.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.