Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family was first published nearly forty years ago, on August 17, 1976. Weighing in at 704 ages, the book was a heavyweight moment in publishing, a triumph of American literature in the late twentieth century. Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an African boy sold into slavery and brought to the United States in the 18th century, tracing the family’s lineage all the way to Haley himself. The story is a masterful work of reportage, one that earned Haley a Pulitzer Prize in 1977.
That year, ABC TV staged a landmark event. From January 23–30, it aired a twelve-hour mini series over eight consecutive nights. The nation was spellbound and followed the show to the very end. One hundred million people tuned in for the finale. That’s right. 100 MILLION—almost half the country! To this day, the finale of Roots holds the distinction of being third highest rated episode of any kind in television history. Never had American television taken on African American history like this. With a cast that included LeVar Burton, John Amos, Ben Vereen, Louis Gosset, Jr., Leslie Uggams, and Vic Morrow, Roots took a docudrama approach to filming, creating a singular style the influenced later productions. Winning 9 of its 37 Emmy Awards nominations, Roots set the bar for great television.
Forty years later, Roots has returned, with a remake that aired May 30–June 2, 2016, on History, A&E, and Lifetime. Starring Malachi Kirby, Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Lawrence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys Myers, Anika Noni Rose, and T.I., the remake 8.5 million people on the opening night, the biggest draw for a cable miniseries in three years. The remake dropped characters added to the 1977 series that were not in the book, like Ed Asner’s Captain Davies, the savior of white guilt, while adding layers of realism to the depictions of African tribes, life on plantations, and life for black soldiers in the Union army.
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Photo: Michael James Shaw as Marcellus and Marcellus Anika Noni Rose as Kizzy. ©Kareem Black.