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Roots - Kunta Kinte whipping scene

by Matt Delmont

Roots’s most iconic scene comes at the end of the second episode where an overseer (played by Vic Morrow) commands a black man to whip Kunta, over and over again until he answers to his assigned slave name, Toby. “They were beating LeVar Burton and Kunta Kinte as one,” Burton later said of the scene.24 “I was really uncomfortable with the idea of being whipped,” Burton remembered. While makeup artists created the appearance of lacerations on his back, the whip was real. Burton had to stand, with his hands tied to scaffolding above his head, while a bullwhip struck him. On the first day of shooting the scene, Burton flinched every time the whipped cracked, so director John Erman postponed the scene for a couple of days. The young actor spent a day with the stunt expert who handled the bullwhip. Burton watched the stunt expert do tricks with the whip until Burton was comfortable that the expert could control the tip of the whip (traveling up to 120 miles an hour) so that it would wrap around the actor’s body without breaking the skin. The second shooting was successful, and Burton considered the scene one of the most powerful in the series. “Kunta was a warrior,” Burton said, “and he maintained that aspect of his identity throughout his entire life, he never surrendered who he was. . . . It was the indomitability of his human spirit, his warrior spirit, that prevented him from accepting that name, and that’s what that scene is about. I control who I am.”

Roots - Kunta Kinte whipping scene

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Roots scene where Kunta Kinte is whipped until he answers to his slave name, Toby.

from Roots (1977)
Creator: ABC/David Wolper Productions
Distributor: ABC
Posted by Matt Delmont