Forty years after the original version aired on ABC, the eight-hour slave saga Roots will premiere on three networks simultaneously this Memorial Day — and is being billed as a teachable epic on race for the era of Black Lives Matter.
The updated series — which features a star-studded cast with Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Ana Paquin, and Mekhi Phifer and boasts a reported $50 million budget — is set to air across A+E Networks, including Lifetime and the History Channel.
The Roots remake was green-lit in the fall of 2013, just a few months after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin — an event that contributed to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There is a whole generation of Americans who don’t know the story, don’t have a connection to Roots,” executive producer LeVar Burton, who starred as Kunta Kinte in the original, told the Hollywood Reporter of the decision to update the influential series. “It was still very daunting to even contemplate. But I felt that there was merit in trying. And if I could help make it as good as it could be, it would be much better than just sitting on the sidelines.”
In the fall of 1977, the 12-episode TV miniseries Roots was viewed by a record 80 million Americans and quickly became one of the most successful media events of the 20th century. That small-screen adaptation, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by former Playboy writer Alex Haley, starred Burton as Kunta Kinte and followed the story of one family’s horrific journey from African royalty to chattel slavery to freedom in segregated Tennessee.
The impact of the series on American discourse surrounding slavery was immediate and far-reaching. According to UCLA’s Journal of Cinema and Media Studies: “Roots turned Kunta Kinte into a household name and reshaped the way Americans discussed the legacy of slavery.”
“How do you get, especially that younger generation, to embrace this?” executive producer Will Packer told THR:
Because at the end of the day, that’s why we’re all here. That’s the challenge. Will it have the same impact as the original? Will 85 percent of households be watching? No, never again will that happen. But it can have a different impact. These filmmakers did an amazing job of not shying away from the atrocities. But it’s not just about the pain. It’s really about courage and survival. It’s inspirational, and it’s aspirational, and those are the elements that I want to get our youth to embrace. That’s the message.
Burton, Whitaker, Packer, and Malachi Kirby, the 26-year-old star of the new series, visited the White House earlier this month for a special screening of the new series.
“Forgive me if this day becomes slightly emotional for me,” Burton said at the screening, which was hosted by Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett. “Being here in this house, at this particular time in history. This is a moment.”
Burton was 19-years-old when he landed the original role of Kunta Kinte, a West African Mandinka warrior who is kidnapped, shipped to America, and sold into slavery.
Now, roughly forty years later, the creative team behind the new series says that certain elements needed to be preserved to ensure authenticity and cultural significance. For instance, the new episodes retain the originals’ use of the N-word and other racial epithets.
“We don’t have a choice to use it or not use it,” said Dubuc. “If we don’t use it, it wouldn’t be authentic to what actually happened.”
“We wanted to make sure it wasn’t gratuitous and that we never felt like, ‘OK, enough,'” she added. “And that was a nuance that I relied on the directors and the actors and the writers to hit. But I think it would have been almost more inflaming not use it. It would be denying what happened.”
One of the new episodes is helmed by director Mario Van Peebles. His son Mandela plays the biracial son of a slave and a white plantation owner, who is shot in the back while attempting to escape the plantation.
Van Peebles told THR that the scene is reminiscent of America’s current problem with over-policing.
“It wasn’t something I was braced to do,” Van Peebles told the outlet. “The way we shot the assassination and the way it reads is ultimately so unfortunately timeless. It’s going to be hard to watch this for some people — especially me as a parent — and not think about where we are now.”
One particular incident while shooting the series stuck with Kirby, who plays Kunta Kinte in the remake, during the filming of a scene in which he is beaten and called a racial epithet.
“[A]t the end of it, [the actor] is in tears, and he apologizes to me. And that was beautiful,” Kirby recalled to THR. “There is a beautiful hope that comes out of that, that even as an actor that he feels the need to apologize just speaks volumes of the times that we’re living in right now. Yes, racism still exists, and ignorance still exists. But that’s part of the reason we’re retelling this story, to speak to those people and hopefully a new generation that if they don’t learn, they will continue in yesterdays.”
Along with the recent star-studded event at the White House, A+E executives have hosted screenings of Roots at historically black colleges and universities and promoted the series at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters in New York in April.
“I will be talking it up,” Sharpton told THR. “If we can create the conversation, [Roots] will not only get a wide viewership, it will evolve the discussions about race — hopefully, from yelling at each other to really talking about the pain and what we’re going to do in the post-Obama era.”
Roots premieres May 30 on History, Lifetime, and A&E.
Follow Jerome Hudson on Twitter: @jeromeehudson.