A landmark fact-based miniseries that 40 years ago sparked a national conversation about race returns, retold for a new generation. Roots — Alex Haley's story of his African ancestor, sold into slavery 250 years ago, and his descendants — must be told again and again, says executive producer Mark Wolper, if we are to understand who we are as a society and how we got where we are today.
Do you know where you were the night of January 23, 1977?
If you're old enough to recognize the name Kunta Kinte, chances are good that you were in front of your television that evening, when ABC premiered the miniseries Roots.
Over eight consecutive nights, the groundbreaking program rose from a 40.5 Nielsen share to just above a 51 share. The finale, which aired on January 30, 1977, remains the third most-watched program in television history: 100 million viewers tuned in.
Based on Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, the landmark production told the story of his ancestors, beginning with his forefather Kunta Kinte's capture in Juffure, Gambia. Roots went on to win nine Emmy Awards, and it remains one of the most beloved and celebrated miniseries of all time.
Producer Will Packer recalls his parents sitting him down to watch Roots during one of its many re-airings. "I remember feeling this is my story," Packer says. "This is a story that relates to me as a young black male. This is a story of how we as a people came to be African American. I remember feeling that kind of weight around the narrative."
This May, a new version of Roots will air over four consecutive nights on History and its sister networks, A+E and Lifetime.
But when it came to remaking Roots, everyone involved had the same question: Why? Why remake such an iconic production?
Producer Mark Wolper was 17 when his late father, producer David L Wolper, made the original Roots. Over the years, Wolper was often asked about remaking the series, and he always said no. But a few years ago, he had his teenage son watch it. To Wolper's great surprise, his son wasn't engaged by what he saw.
"He said to me, 'I understand why this is important, but it's kind of like your music, Dad. It doesn't speak to me,'" Wolper explains. "It was in that moment that I realized that there is a reason to do Roots again. The reason to do it again is because it is history — history of this country, of a race, of a people, of a family — and we always must tell history over and over again."
Nearly 40 years later, many TV viewers weren't even alive when Roots first aired. To the millennial generation, the production may seem dated. "This is something that a new generation needs to see," Packer says. "It needs to be told in a fresh new way, in a way that young people can really receive it. Especially now. Especially in today's climate."
LeVar Burton's career was launched when he was cast as the younger Kunta Kinte in the original production (John Amos played the older). He was just 19. He returned to this Roots as a coexecutive producer.
"I'm still processing it, and I don't know if I have the verbal vocabulary to express what it felt like," he says of being behind the scenes on this production.
"It is so rare that we get the opportunity to revisit such a seminal event in our lives 40 years later. Roots is such a powerful reality, not just for me personally but for this nation, for America, for who we were then and who we are now."
The extensive cast includes Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anika Noni Rose, Derek Luke, Mekhi Phifer and James Purefoy.
"We tried to go after actors that gave us some visibility and definitely were perceived as the best in their field," Packer says. "You want to make sure when you're doing a project like this that you've got entry points for your audience — folks that do feel familiar."
However, for the pivotal role of Kunta Kinte, the producers had an international casting call.
It is Kunta Kinte's story of being horrifically captured in his native Juffure, transported in heinous conditions to America on a slave ship and sold into slavery in Virginia that make up the first episode. "The Kunta character is the heartbeat of this story," Packer says. "If we didn't get the casting right, the entire story falls apart."
Burton agrees that finding the right actor to play Kunta Kinte was job one. "He has to engage the audience and get them to sign on to the journey of going through the whole story," he says. "For very personal reasons, I was very attached to making sure we had the right guy."
After more than 3,000 actors tried out, the role went to British actor Malachi Kirby. "When he's on screen, it's hard to take your eyes off him," Burton says. "He's very charismatic. You empathize with him. You find it easy to root for this guy because he is so full of life. His joy is infectious, and so his suffering becomes very personal."
Burton traveled to South Africa to be on the set while Kirby filmed. Although he is naturally protective of the role, it was surprisingly easy for him to let Kirby take over. "A large part of our conversations was to make sure he knew how important it was to do the role his way," Burton says.
Kirby says he's not easily star-struck, but meeting Burton the first time rendered him a little speechless.
"He grabbed me by the shoulders and just looked at me," Kirby says. "He's got these really intense eyes. And then he smiled and embraced me, and he felt like family immediately. It almost brought me to tears, the amount of love that I felt from him. He reinforced the point that he was there for me and would support me on this journey, and he did."
Kirby, who prepared for the role in part by changing his diet to eat as his character would have, says that after reading the script, he saw Kinte as a superhero.
"He wasn't just a victim of slavery," he says. "He fought, and his fight came in the form of holding on to his traditions, holding on to his name, passing down those traditions to his daughter.
"There are a lot of people in the black community that are fed up with seeing stories about slavery, and I get that. A big part of the reason I took this job is that this isn't just another story about slavery. This is a story about a line of people who fought against slavery. It is an important and powerful story to tell."
Kirby was 26 playing Kunta Kinte, and being older than Burton made a difference. "He said to me he was a mighty child, but I was a mighty man," Kirby recalls of his conversations with Burton.
Those words resonated. Kirby's Kunta Kinte is more of a fighter, who calls his owners master only a handful of times and doesn't change his accent. "I just hope audiences are ready to receive something new," Kirby says.
The production was a massive undertaking, with Packer and Wolper serving as executive producers, along with Marc Toberoff, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. The international shoot — directed by Phillip Noyce, Mario van Peebles, Thomas Carter and Bruce Beresford — filmed for more than six months in South Africa and Louisiana.
The elaborate sets included cities, a slave ship and slave quarters. Historically accurate wardrobes were created from scratch.
Significant research went into the script, written by Konner, Rosenthal, Alison McDonald and Charles Murray. Since Haley's novel was first published in 1976, historians and archeologists have discovered many more details.
Juffure is much more a city in this Roots than it was in the original. "I still have historians debating about things that go in the cuts now," Wolper says. "The history has to be bulletproof, but it will never be, because even the historians don't agree."
Anika Noni Rose, who plays Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy, worked to develop an authentic dialect. The Tony winner conducted her own research at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
"One thing that I was conscious of was not allowing her to fall into the stereotypical sound of what we think we know about slavery, with dats and dems and dose. Our scripts were not in dialect, so it was on us to put the sounds that we wanted in there."
Filming on plantations in and around New Orleans had a profound effect on the actors. "Being on those real plantations was just surreal for me," says actress Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays Kinte's wife, Belle. "Looking at the trees on the property and wondering what stories they would have to tell. I've never come close to slavery and it was chilling, it was off-putting, it was amazing, it was gut-wrenching."
Revisiting the darkest period in American history was an extremely personal event. "It was an incredible experience being on set and standing in the shadow of these huge plantations, where I know that my ancestors were before me," Packer says. "The blood of my ancestors is on the ground in some of these locations. You could almost feel their spirits in the wind."
Several of the actors visited the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the only plantation museum dedicated to showing what life was like from the perspective of an enslaved person. Rose was deeply moved by the tour. She recalls that it was so hot when they were walking around that they were under umbrellas. But enslaved people had to work for hours in that same heat.
"You think, 'I would never treat someone so inhumanely,' but these [slave owners] did treat people so inhumanely all day, every day," she says. "People who have made it through slavery are immensely strong, resourceful, often heroic people."
Wolper says there were many times when actors were so emotionally affected that filming had to stop. In the scene in which a white slave hunter cuts off Kinte's foot, actor David Kallaway, who plays the slave hunter, was so upset that he had to walk away from the set after the first take. "They had the same problems on the first Roots, too," Wolper says.
Everyone knows that the production will have to live up to the legacy of Roots. "People are going to compare us to the first Roots no matter what," Wolper says. "So every choice made in this process was about, how do we honor the first Roots without being the first Roots?"
The actors tried not to get wrapped up in comparing themselves to the original cast. After she got the part, Corinealdi watched the original show again. "I thought, 'Oh gosh, this is just so perfect and excellent,'" she said. "So I chose to ground myself in my own truth of who Belle was and what I'm trying to get across about her and all of the women that she represents."
All agree that this is an important time to bring Roots back to the forefront of discussion.
"We've come so far as a country, and yet there are some pieces of our history that we just can't seem to neutralize," Rose says. "The most important thing we can do as a society is be open and honest about the mistakes that we have made. Because if we really truly own them, we can learn from them and make sure we don't repeat ourselves."
Packer believes that understanding the African-American experience will give people a foundation for conversations.
"If you don't know your history, that allows ignorance, preconceived notions and misperception to creep in," he says, "and it allows us to form opinions that aren't based on fact. So it's important that a story like this be told and be told right, as we as a human race try to work together and proceed together."
Wolper hopes the production will encourage viewers to explore their own ancestry. "It's enough if they call their grandfather and say, 'Hey, Grandpa, where did you come from? Tell me your story.' It helps families to understand each other, It helps everything. Let's understand where we come from. How can we have a national debate unless we all understand where we came from, who we are and why we're where we are today?"