“Do you really know who you are in your heart?” writer/director Elvin Ross asked St. Augustine High School’s student body Feb. 26 at the school’s black history month celebration. “I want to introduce you to ‘Kunta Kinteh Island.’”
Students clapped as the opening song to the documentary “Kunta Kinteh Island: Coming Home Without Shackles” played. “Coming Home, I’m Free from Chains. Coming Home, I’m free from pain…”
For approximately an hour, sixth through 12th graders had the opportunity to absorb African-American history through the story of Kunta Kinteh, a slave taken from his African home and sold as a slave in the new world, who was highlighted in the 1977 miniseries “Roots.”
St. Augustine students weren’t yet born when Alex Haley, a direct descendant of Kunta Kinteh, wrote “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” in 1976, said Alfred Harrell III, St. Aug’s executive director for Institutional Advancement. Harrell thought he could bring African-American history alive to students by inviting Louisiana-born Ross to screen the documentary and then answer questions.
“This is the next generation of ‘Roots,’” Harrell said. “These young people didn’t have the opportunity to see Roots. It’s bringing the whole project back and the whole history between Alex Haley’s family and Kunta Kinteh.”
Delving into film
“Kunta Kinteh Island” is Ross’ first foray into writing and directing. He said his background is in composing, having scored several of Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Family” movies and sitcoms. He also played music at Greater St. Stephen Baptist Church for years. By watching Perry work, Ross said he gained much experience about movie making and said it was an easy transition.
Ross said executive producer Don Stabler invited him to join the production as a composer. After Ross made some positive suggestions about the project, he was asked to be the director.
He had to do much research to produce the documentary but said he was fortunate to find Kunta Kinteh’s relatives – “Griots” – who have kept his family history alive through the generations. Several of his relatives are featured in the documentary. Actor Ben Vereen, who portrayed “Chicken George” in “Roots,” also was interviewed for the documentary and talked about visiting Haley’s hometown of Henning, Tenn., and the graveyard where Chicken George is buried.
The documentary voiced how African-Americans come “from a line of kings, queens, scientists, artists, great mathematicians. … the great civilization of Africa.” They were stolen from their homeland and brought to America in shackles and chains and suffered pain and injustice.
“If you can hold on to this strength, you can overcome anything,” Ross said.
It also told the story of how Kunta Kinteh was enslaved in 1767 and brought to James Island where he was held captive for 15 days before he landed in the Americas. The documentary ends with the Gambian government renaming James’ Island in Gambia, West Africa, as Kunta Kinteh Island in 2011. In the documentary, Ross captures the Roots Festival during which the island is renamed, and he also interviews members of Kunta Kinteh’s family. Ross also wrote the movie’s musical score.
Ross said he is touring the documentary before it is widely released. He said he’s trying to get African-American communities to come together as a result of the project.
“I want them to see themselves there,” he said. “I want them to see the pride, the strength and the courage so they can tell their story.”
In addition to the documentary, Harrell said St. Augustine students continued Black Heritage Month discussing important figures in black history during class and writing and performing poems and song in a black history program on March 1.
Visit www.kuntakinteh islandmovie.com or www.elvinross.com for details.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.