“Nobody wanted to see Roots.
That was the verdict of America’s ABC network in 1977. They had paid $6.6 million (unheard of at the time) to produce a miniseries based on Alex Haley’s best-seller chronicling his African ancestors journey from their homeland, via slave ships, to the American plantations.
But when ABC’s executives looked at the rushes and saw a proliferation of whippings, lynching and rape, they suffered a collective case of cold feet.
They decided to cut their losses and burn the entire series off, screening it over eight consecutive nights in January. However, the plan backfired. Roots became a national obsession, a talking point in every American household, and the final episode was watched by more than 100 million people.
The performances, particularly that of LeVar Burton as Kunte Kinte, the displaced warrior lashed by his master until he accepted his slave name, were iconic.
The casting of beloved prime-time patriarchs such as Lorne Greene, Lloyd Bridges and even Robert Reed, the affable dad from The Brady Bunch, as snarling, sadistic slave traders and overseers, drew in mainstream America while simultaneously teaching them a blood-soaked history lesson.
Burton pronounced himself both “incredulous and troubled” when he heard rumours of a Roots remake. He believed there was no conceivable way a fresh take on Haley’s material could have anything approaching the impact of the original, especially in an era of dwindling audiences.
But when he realised that few viewers under 40 had any kind of familiarity with the 1977 miniseries, Burton gave the project his blessing and signed on as executive producer.
The first episode in the four-night, eight-hour 2016 iteration of Roots is both a horror film and an action movie. Its opening half-hour is devoted to establishing the life and relationships of Kunta Kinte (British actor Malachi Kirby) and then ripping him away from his home and family in Juffere, West Africa…”