Emayatzy Corinealdi is a seasoned independent film actress — most recently starring in 2015’s Don Cheadle biopic of Miles Davis, “Miles Ahead” — who has yet to break into the ranks of seasoned TV actress. This week, that all begins to change as she assumes the role of Belle on History channel’s eight-hour reboot of “Roots.”
Isabelle “Belle” Reynolds, born on or about 1747, was a slave owned by Dr. William Reynolds (Matthew Goode) of Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and also one of the key links of the Alex Haley (“Roots”) family chain, as wife of Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) and mother of Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose).
I spoke with Emayatzy — pronounced Ema-Yahtzee — about the role last week:
Where did you grow up?
“I was an Army brat, but born in Kentucky, and majority of my time growing up in Kansas, so between there and [New] Jersey.”
So you and Ava DuVernay (Oscar nominee for “Selma”) once worked together on a film?
“ ‘Middle of Nowhere’ [the 2012 indie with Omari Hardwick, Lorraine Toussaint and David Oyelowo] put us both on a platform so we got to experience that together.
I’d done a lot of indie movies and pilots that hadn’t gone forward and hadn’t made it into the mainstream. . . . It was a story about a woman who was married and her husband was incarcerated. It takes her on this journey and as a result of this finding yourself in the middle of nowhere.”
When did you first hear about “Roots” — the original?
“It was maybe middle school or high school. I don’t know if ‘excited’ is the word, but up until that point I hadn’t learned as much about slavery or the ‘Roots’ period so it was really interesting when I did see it [on VHS tapes, by the way, she adds].”
“A sense of pride in seeing the strength of my ancestors, and being able to face that kind of turmoil every single day, and to stand up and live. I remember being encouraged by that feeling . . . really just feeling horror at the fact that it had happened to that extreme.”
How did the role of Belle come to you?
“My agent sent me the script and my first question was: Why were they looking to do a reboot of any sort? But reading the script I just saw the opportunity for a real conversation to take place, and for this to reach another generation that hadn’t seen the original. It was a wonderful opportunity to be part of that conversation, and that my nieces and nephews would be able to witness this for the first time — and I have 13 nieces and nephews.”
Madge Sinclair — who died in 1995 — played Belle in the original 1977 miniseries. Did you get any pointers from her performance?
“I thought she was absolutely beautiful — and there was this undercurrent of strength that ran through her performance. That’s what I loved about it. Her character was so strong but also had these moments of vulnerability.”
How did you envision Belle?
“I really just knew that I was going to incorporate all the different women — the women we’ve never heard of, the faceless, nameless people that will never get an opportunity.”
What does this “Roots” mean to you?
“So much love has been poured into this, and everyone involved feels this is so much bigger than themselves and it certainly feels that way to me. One of the things I’m hoping for is that there really will be a conversation that continues as a result of this — that we really have made strides in our society since the first one, but we still have a lot more work to do.”
What’s the substance of that conversation?
“That the conversation requires people to listen to each other and from that comes understanding and patience, and a tolerance for peoples and cultures. Also, that there has to be much more coming together, much less division. The other thing is that I hope it encourages people to go out and find where they are from. For me that was especially exciting — I found out my people had come from Nigeria, which I had never known. It’s important because it gives people a sense of grounding, that they belong somewhere.
“I also think that a lot of African-Americans feel that when it comes to slavery, they don’t want to speak about it because it was so harmful and hurtful — understandably. But if you’re able to turn that around and see the strength and resilience that was required in order to survive, that would be something else to take away from this.”