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Documentary explores roots for a new generation

4th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Philip Stelly
Contributing Writer

Last week, more than 600 students crowded into St. Augustine High School’s gymnasium to watch “Kunta Kinteh Island: Coming Home Without Shackles,” a documentary that hopes to spur a new generation to answer the age-old questions: “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?”

These are the central questions that guided author Alex Haley to share his personal history through “Roots,” the blockbuster book and ABC miniseries that prompted a national discussion on race and spurred many African Americans to trace their ancestry back to Africa as Haley did.

Through “Kunta Kinteh Island,” Louisiana-born composer and filmmaker Elvin Ross is picking up Haley’s mantle for a new generation to explore their roots by retelling the story of Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinteh, Haley’s ancestor who was brought to America aboard a slave ship.

Ross’ documentary, which de?picts Kunta Kinteh’s enslavement and survival through harrowing circumstances, is sprinkled with many interviews with Kunta Kinteh’s relatives in the village of Juffereh, in the West African nation of Gambia. Ross also documents his own visit to the point of Kunta Kinteh’s captivity, James Island, which was formally renamed Kunta Kinteh Island on Feb 3, 2011.

Ross launched what he is calling his Heritage Tour in New Orleans “to get everybody in the community together to come and see the film and to start digging into their family history.” Although the students at St. Augustine weren’t even born when “Roots” fever swept America in the late 1970s, Ross said he was “caught off guard” by the students’ interest in Kunta Kinteh’s story as they watched the documentary.

That’s exactly what the film is intended to do, said actor Ben Vereen, the veteran actor who played Chicken George in the original “Roots” and who also appears in Kunta Kinteh Island. “ We must be reminded of the African American Holocaust that is slavery and that is what this film does, “Vereen said in a telephone interview. “We also need to be reminded that slavery needs to be abolished worldwide,” he added, referring to child pornography and sex trafficking as modern-day slavery.

Besides St. Augustine, Kunta Kinteh Island was shown at Loyola University and at a fundraiser for the Elvin Ross Foundation held at the Audubon Tea Room. At that event, National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial was expected to present an humanitarian award to Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. The foundation plans to use the money from fundraisers like this one for clean water projects and to purchase books and solar laptops for the primary school in Juffereh, Gambia.

The so-called Heritage Tour moves to Atlanta this week with a screening at Morehouse College and star-studded gala at the Woodruff Center featuring CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and Tyler Perry, the New Orleans-born actor and filmmaker who has been an early supporter of Ross’s work. Ross, who makes his directorial debut with this film, has composed the music for many Tyler Perry movies.

No dates have been set for either a theatrical release or viewing on a television network.

This article originally published in the March 4, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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