A Retrospection On The Evolution And Impact Of 'Roots'

January 30 2020

It's been more than four decades since Roots aired on national television and changed the game for portrayals of Black history on screen. On the anniversary of the miniseries' premiere, we reflect on the impact of the series.

Over the past decade, moviegoers have been presented with multiple offerings of films depicting the brutality of slavery. While some of the films have been well received by audiences and critics, like 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, films like last year’s Harriet have received mixed reviews. However, one depiction of slavery that has been generally well-received and been able to stand the test of time is Roots: The Saga of An American Family.

Adapted from Alex Haley’s 1976 novel of the same name, Roots traces a fictional version of Haley’s maternal side of his family from his great-great-great-grandfather Kunta Kinte’s capture in The Gambia to his time enslaved in America, and the lives of his descendants who were enslaved and those freed at the end of the Civil War. Airing over eight separate nights on ABC in Jan 1977, Roots was a groundbreaking miniseries. Not only did it depict the brutalities of slavery, but it also told the story of one family’s lineage in the United States. The airing of the miniseries also encouraged many across racial lines to have open dialogues about slavery. Before Roots, the only dramatic depiction of slavery on television had been The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson.

When the first episode of Roots aired the way African Americans viewed their history of enslavement changed. The historical evidence included in the series, proving that the story was based on real-life events over the course of multiple generations, was nothing short of groundbreaking. Starring an esteemed cast of Black actors, including Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, Madge Sinclair and John Amos, and launching the career of a young LeVar Burton, the mini-series immediately became a success, drawing an estimated 130 million viewers over the course of the eight episodes.

Not only did Roots revolutionize the type of stories that were seen on television, but it also gave a lot of Black actors the opportunity for work. At the time, Roots had the largest Black cast in commercial television history. While a stat like that should have changed the way Hollywood viewed Black talent, our stories, and the rate that actors were hired for projects, Roots did not lead the diversify Hollywood charge because it was seen by executives as a “unique story” that could also attract white viewers. Many actors like the legendary Leslie Uggams, who played Kizzy in the miniseries, didn’t receive calls for work until years later. While Roots was a new chapter in the conversation concerning the history of race in America, it would be years before that conversation would take place in Hollywood.

In 2016, the History channel aired a remake of the same name that aired over the course of four nights and had Burton credited as one of the producers. While the remake was well received, many viewers who were fans of the original miniseries did note differences in the storytelling. Many facts about the trauma of slavery weren’t known during the making of the 1977 miniseries, in comparison to the wider wealth of knowledge available in 2016. Due to the conversation that Roots helped to launch, scenes had a more accurate depiction of what actually happened to enslaved humans during slavery.

As another indication of its impact, Roots also birthed three different spinoffs: Roots: The Gift, Roots: The Next Generation, which picks up right where Roots left off, and Queen: The Story of An American Family which stars Halle Berry as Alex Haley’s paternal grandmother. In 2016, a Roots series remake premiered to critical acclaim, showing that there is still great interest and appreciation for stories about Black American and African ancestors surviving and rebelling in slavery.

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Photo: Wolper Productions

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