'Roots' Star Erica Tazel On the Dynamic Power of Matriarchy in the Black Community

Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic
The actress shares why it was so important for her to be a part of retelling this particular story at this particular moment. 

Single Black Mothers--they are a testament to the strength and resilience of the Black community.

But imagine what life was like for Black mothers hundreds of years ago, when families were torn apart in the midst of slavery. When fathers were sold or worse at the hands of the masters. When the fate of children was perhaps the same thing, and the darkest fears of mothers were realized. 

That’s what life was like for Matilda, a character in Alex Haley’s 1977 slave narrative, Roots. That’s what life became for actress Erica Tazel when she stepped into the character for the upcoming remake of the iconic TV production. 

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Tazel channeled the life and legacy of Matilda, the wife of Chicken George and it’s one she said changed her own life in more ways than one. 

“I was extremely nervous about remaking something this iconic,” the actress shared. “There’s this woman, Matilda, who singlehandedly raises this family, mostly of boys, who become men and she has to keep that family together. She at least tries to keep that family together and how many stories do we have of that today?”

Unfortunately, far too many.

That part of the narrative is something Tazel was conscious of throughout filming—how the horrors of the past influenced the terrors of the present and in the same yet different ways echo that Black Lives do indeed Matter. 

“In many ways Matilda is the ancestral throwback of the single mother who has to keep the kids educated and formed for example if the father gets incarcerated, or if he dies or if he is killed by gun violence. There is some version of that that could have happened in that time, whether he was sold, hung, or in our case, sent to another country and I wanted to pay homage to that.”

And that she did. 

For viewers, Tazel hopes that all the women seen in the film—from Kunta Kinte’s mother, Binta onto Belle who is Kunta’s wife, and Kizzy, their daughter and finally Matilda—that no matter what, matriarchy has been responsible for making the world go ‘round. 

“The power and the strength of the leadership that we have in our community and in our families in particular that’s something that is not to be denied,” Tazel added. “I want young girls to know in a world that is seemingly dominated by men, that we have a voice, a power and something to contribute that is specifically unique to us. I hope that young women and older women too will look at this project and be proud that the women that are represented in this retelling are formidable and strong and we are standing on their shoulders today.”

The eight hour-four night series Roots premieres on The History Channel on Monday, May 30 at 9 p.m.

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