Share this story

How Malachi Kirby Relied On Faith While Filming ‘Roots’

The actor talks terrible auditions, LeVar Burton’s words of wisdom and how his faith helped him bring Kunta Kinte to life for a new generation. 

Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte in Roots

When History airs its much-anticipated Roots remake this Memorial weekend, all eyes will be on Malachi Kirby – the young actor given the enormous responsibility of bringing Kunta Kinte’s inspiring story to a new generation.

The 26-year-old Brit has a few credits to his name but none as storied and, frankly, important as the character made famous by LeVar Burton over forty years ago. For Kirby, the role of Kunta Kinte – a Gambian warrior ripped from his homeland in the Mandika village of Juffure and taken in chains to America – was a part he wasn’t sure he wanted and certainly never thought he’d get.

“I heard they were making a remake and, like a lot of people, I asked ‘Why?’” Kirby tells “I felt very protective of the first one. I didn’t know what their intentions were in trying to do it again and I definitely don’t like the idea of remakes.”


His wariness of the role may be the reason he almost didn’t get it.

The actor arrived 30 minutes late to his casting call, forgot his lines and, in his own words, completely butchered the West African accent with which his character was expected to speak.

“It was the worst audition of my life,” Kirby explains. “I spent most of the time worrying about what would happen if I got the part than actually preparing for it.”

Still, five months later, Kirby heard back from the show’s casting directors who wanted him to return for another round of auditions.

“Clearly they must’ve been desperate,” Kirby jokes.

This time around, things went differently.

“Something took over in that room that I wasn’t prepared for and I wasn’t in control of and everyone else knew it,” Kirby explains. That idea of a higher power at work is a running theme in Kirby’s Roots journey.

Before the actor was even offered the part, he struggled with whether he was capable of capturing the essence and courage of a man like Kunta Kinte. One day, he got his answer.

“It’s going to sound really strange, but basically, God spoke to me,” Kirby says. “It was in a way that was clear as day and that’s never happened to me before. There was this feeling that came to me, that [the role] was going to be given to me for a purpose.”

Perhaps that purpose is to help breathe new life into a story many think they already know.

If this new version of Roots is concerned with one thing, its accuracy. Kirby shares how, in the forty years since the original aired, we’ve learned even more about slavery and its terrible consequences – something this new version is unapologetic about highlighting. Creators of the show have hired historians who helped ensure this updated retelling is realistic and honest, even more so than its predecessor.


For Kirby, that meant approaching Kunta Kinte not as a naïve young man from a remote African village, but as a head-strong, educated warrior whose entire being radiates defiance and the strength that comes from knowing one’s self.

Burton was there when Kirby had to film his most difficult scene, the iconic whipping of Kunta Kinte by  his enslaver John Waller.

“LeVar gave me these little nuggets of wisdom that had a huge impact on me while filming,” Kirby explains. “He would come up to me and say something like, ‘When I did this, I was a child. You’re a mighty man.’ Then he’d just walk away. But then I’m doing the whipping scene and I’ve got these words running through my head, ‘I’m a mighty man. I’m a mighty man.’ It causes me to resist a lot longer than I would have if I didn’t have those words in my head.”

The whipping isn’t just brutal to watch, it’s also the heavy, raw moment when Kunta Kinte realizes there may be no hope to escape his enslavers alive. “That was one of those days where I was like ‘I have no idea what to do,’” Kirby admits. “I got down on my knees and was like, ‘God, I don’t know how to do this. I’m never going to get hit, but I need to show this physical pain of this person getting beaten and not just getting beaten but having their identity beaten out of them. I’ve never been through that.’”

Kirby remembers a point when the cameras stopped rolling and he was unable to pull himself off the ground. He explains it as hearing the thousands of screams from his ancestors who had been whipped before him.

“I needed to not be all right,” Kirby says. “I needed to not be comfortable in order to tell the truth. That was important to me, to get as close to the truth as I possibly could so that people could feel it, so that people could not watch that scene casually while eating dinner. It needs to be something that shocks people into the truth of how horrendous [slavery]was. If that was ever going to happen I needed to go through it first.”

The actor hopes this re-telling can help heal old wounds and spark conversations about the importance of our history and how we as a society can learn from it.

 “My prayer for this is that it brings about a sense of peace,” the actor continues. “And that it shows the importance of knowing exactly where you came from, the importance of knowing you have a history, especially as an African [American], before slavery.”

Roots premieres on History May 30th at 9 p.m. EST.


Share this story

Secrets From Grandma's Attic Book 1: History Lost and Found

0 reviews

Follow Grandma Pearl’s granddaughters as they explore hidden treasures and generations-old mysteries found in Grandam’s attic and discover the legacy of her deep, abiding faith that shaped their family.

Plus receive 2 FREE Gifts –  a pearl-pendant necklace and a beautiful tote with the Book 1 or series purchase!  A $30 value.

Community Newsletter

Get More Inspiration Delivered to Your Inbox

Donate to change a life together
Scroll to Top